How pumped is Chris Sale to be starting for the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros?
“Really. I mean, this is what we’re all here for,” the veteran left-hander told reporters Thursday, shortly after Cora announced Sale would take the ball for Friday night’s series opener at Minute Maid Park. “You know, we’ve seen these guys a couple of times in the postseason. We know what we’re up against. So just more exciting baseball and trying to get off on the right foot, Game 1.”
The Red Sox and Astros certainly are familiar adversaries. Houston won the World Series in 2017 after eliminating Boston in the AL Division Series, while the Red Sox exacted revenge in 2018 by knocking off the Astros in the ALCS en route to their fourth championship in 15 seasons.
Every year is different, though. And the opportunity to start Game 1 of a postseason series isn’t something Sale, a seven-time All-Star, takes lightly, especially after missing the entire 2020 season and a good chunk of the 2021 campaign while recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“Yeah, I mean, I know what it takes,” Sale said Thursday, reflecting on the three years that have passed since he closed out Game 5 of the 2018 World Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. “We’ve been there as a team. We collectively know what it takes to get to the top and chase that pinnacle that we’re all chasing.
“How quickly it came crashing down a year later, personally for myself. As a team, we didn’t have a great year (in 2019-20), but yeah, I had a lot of time off, and I had a lot of time to really get back to appreciating the little things and trying not to make more of something that isn’t. And like I said a month or so ago, I don’t take days for granted. I don’t have off days. I don’t waste big league time anymore, and I think that gives me a clear mind pitching.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora’s decision to hand Sale the ball for Game 1 against the Astros was somewhat surprising, as most assumed Nathan Eovaldi would draw the start on regular rest. After all, Sale has pitched just 43 2/3 major league innings since returning from Tommy John surgery and struggled in his two most recent outings, including his start against the Tampa Bay Rays last Friday in Game 2 of the ALDS.
But Cora clearly has faith in Sale’s ability to set the right tone Friday night in Houston, the place where he made his playoff debut in 2017. A few rough patches aren’t enough to overshadow Sale’s track record.
“When I suck, I know, hey, at least I did everything I could to get here,” Sale, 32, said of the perspective he’s gained in recent years. “Not that I’ll ever be OK with it, but it makes it easier to get back on the horse and say, ‘Alright, man, no one is going to feel bad for you. Back on the grind.’
“You know, my work, my dedication I think is higher, and my appreciation for what I do is much higher.”
Sale has fought hard to reach this point. It’s time for the work to pay off.