Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora threw everyone a curveball — or, more appropriately, a wipeout slider — Thursday when he announced Chris Sale will start Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros.
Nathan Eovaldi could’ve taken the ball Friday night in Houston on regular rest after last pitching Sunday in Game 3 of the AL Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays, but Cora instead opted for Boston’s longtime ace, who struggled in his two most recent outings.
So, what went into the skipper’s decision?
“Just the whole series,” Cora told reporters, as transcribed by ASAP Sports. “It’s a seven-game series. You have to win four. Everybody has to be part of this. We feel comfortable with Chris with the rest that he got. And obviously giving Nate one more day is going to benefit. The off day, the structure of the bullpen (Friday), so we should be OK.”
When Sale toes the rubber in Game 1 at Minute Maid Park, it’ll be exactly one week since he faced the Rays in Game 2 of the ALDS. The left-hander lasted just an inning in that start, allowing five runs on four hits, the biggest being a grand slam by Jordan Luplow.
The Red Sox rallied in that contest, ultimately winning 14-6 to even the series at one game apiece. And they never looked back, securing back-to-back walk-off victories in Games 3 and 4 to punch their ticket to the ALCS. But Sale’s woes were a continuation of his final regular-season start on Oct. 3, in which he surrendered two runs on four hits with three walks and seven strikeouts, lasting just 2 1/3 innings against the lowly Washington Nationals.
Still, Cora didn’t waver in rolling with the seven-time All-Star for Game 1 in Houston.
“It’s Chris Sale,” Cora said Thursday. “At one point he had to pitch in this series, and we’re very comfortable with him going (Friday). I think the structure of the series and the structure of our bullpen (Friday) is going to be — we’re going to be aggressive regardless. I don’t expect him to come out in the first inning. I expect him to go out there and pitch a good game and give us a chance to win.
“You got to trust everybody in this roster. We got 26 guys that they have to do a job for us to advance to the World Series, and he is one of them. And that’s the reason he is pitching (Friday), and then Nate will follow him.”
Sale is just two months removed from his first start back after Tommy John surgery. He underwent the procedure in March 2020, missed that entire season and has just 10 appearances (43 2/3 innings) under his belt in 2021.
As such, there’s still some unpredictability when he receives the nod. But Cora clarified there will be no limitations on Sale in Game 1. The Red Sox are hopeful he’ll pitch well, like he’s done for most of his Major League Baseball career, and the bullpen will be there to pick him up if he falters.
Nick Pivetta, Eduardo Rodriguez and Tanner Houck all are options for multiple innings in relief.
“(Sale) is a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish,” Cora said. “And we talked about it during the day as a group, as a coaching staff and the front office, and we all came to the conclusion that this is the best way to start the series.”
Winning really would be the best way to start the series. It’s up to Sale to set the tone.