The Boston Red Sox came into Tuesday games with a powerful lineup, the best record in the Major Leagues and a cushy nine-game lead over the Yankees in the American League East.
There seems no reason for the Red Sox or their fans to panic as they move closer to the postseason. But that doesn’t mean they won’t.
A tremor of dread has hovered over the medical condition of Chris Sale, the team’s ace starter. Originally placed on the disabled list on July 31, the Sox put him back there last weekend with a shoulder issue.
In doing so, rookie manager Alex Cora told reporters there is no timetable for Sale’s comeback. Cora stressed they want the lefthander pain free heading to the playoffs and the organization is comfortable coddling the soreness in his left shoulder.
So what should we all believe? Are the Sox just taking great precaution with Sale or is there something seriously wrong with him that they aren’t ready to share?
This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that over the last few years, Major League teams have made, or been forced to consider, curious decisions about key starters heading to the postseason.
In 2012, the Washington Nationals inexplicably left Stephen Strasburg off their postseason roster in order to preserve his arm after he’d reached an innings limit during the regular season.
After Strasburg had Tommy John surgery in 2010, the Nats decided he would throw no more than 160 innings in his first season back. And that number was reached in September.
Much like the Red Sox this season, Washington had the best record in the Majors. But it was also in its first postseason since 1981, when they were the Montreal Expos. And there was a lot of pressure on the team in Washington to win.
Until he was shut down, Strasburg was 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA and 197 strikeouts in 159 1/3 innings. He had experienced no pain. But it didn’t matter and there were some people none too happy about the decision to prematurely end his season.
“We’ve got to win it,” an unnamed player told FoxSports.com during the NLDS against the Cardinals. “We’ve got to win it to make it go away.”
The Nationals did not win it. The Cardinals took the series in five games and the Nationals have never lived it down.
Then, in 2015, with the New York Mets on the way to the World Series, Matt Harvey’s agent, Scott Boras, suddenly announced the righthander shouldn’t be allowed to throw more than 180 innings in his first season back from Tommy John.
Apparently, this is what Boras had been told by Harvey’s surgeon, Dr. James Andrews. At that point, Harvey had thrown just over 166 innings. He was 12-7 with a 2.60 ERA in 25 starts. He too seemed fine.
To calm that furor, Harvey was forced to hold a press conference during which he countered Boras’ comments, saying he didn’t want to stop pitching.
The Mets said they were not under the impression Harvey came into the season with a 180 innings limit. They planned use him for 185, plus the postseason, and to accomplish it they’d space out September starts by going to a six-man rotation
“My assumption was that they were doing the Strasburg approach,” Boras told the media at the time. “Keep pitching him on his normal day, let him throw his innings. If he gets there and he’s healthy, great. But you may have to shut him down before the end of the season.”
As it turned out, Harvey ended the season with 189 1/3 innings in 29 starts and threw another 26 2/3 in four postseason starts.
That said, it seems clear that Sale is struggling physically and his history with the White Sox and Red Sox is filled with examples of September swoons. But in his last start on Aug. 12 against the Baltimore Orioles, he struck out 12 in five innings and allowed only one hit to extend his scoreless streak to 28 innings.
He is 12-4, leads the American League with a 1.97 ERA and is 6-0 with a 0.20 ERA in his left seven starts. Hmmm. Those aren’t numbers punched out by a pitcher in pain.
So what gives?
“It’s definitely less [pain] than it was last time,” Sales told the media earlier this week. “It didn’t bounce back, wasn’t really responding the way we wanted it to. Given kind of where we are, it was kind of right call to give it some rest and stay on top of it. You don’t want to be playing catch-up during a time like this.”
Cora then reiterated he was all in favor of giving Sale a rest. In the Division Series last October, it was clear that Sale, who had 308 strikeouts over a career-high 214 regular-season innings, was gassed in the Division Series against the Astros, posting an 8.38 ERA in two starts.
“I think it’s a smart move,” he said. “This guy is very important to what we’re trying to accomplish, and if he needs to skip one, two, three [starts], whatever, we’re willing to do that. He’ll be back. Like he said, he feels better than the last time we put him on the DL, so he’ll get his rest, he’ll go through treatment, and we’ll go from there.”