It’s hard to believe it was only a year ago that Chris Sale was the one whipping triple-digit heat past the National League’s best hitters.
An All-Star starter for the third straight season, Sale put on a show in Washington, lighting up the radar gun at 100 mph and getting Paul Goldschmidt to wave wildly at a knee-buckling slider.
This year he watched from home for the first time since 2011. At 3-8 with a 4.04 ERA, Sale wasn’t snubbed. He just hasn’t looked himself for most of the season.
A lot of little things went wrong for the Red Sox in an erratic and ultimately underwhelming first half, and a heart-attack bullpen has diverted a lot of attention from Sale’s struggles, but if the Red Sox are to make a real run at repeating as World Series champions, the ace needs to start pitching like an ace again.
In his final appearance before the All-Star break, Sale gave up three homers in a loss to the Blue Jays, and the Red Sox fell to 6-12 in his starts.
“I’m supposed to be a big part of this team and a big part of this pitching staff. I’ve probably been the biggest crutch,” Sale told reporters in Toronto. “I know who I am and who I’m supposed to be for this team, and I haven’t even been anything close.
“What am I, 3-8? That’s absolutely embarrassing. That’s not what I need to be and that’s not who I need to be for this team. On a team like this, they need me to be better and I haven’t been there for them. I’m standing before you as frustrated as I’ve ever been, just to be honest.”
There’s one way Sale can get back on track rather quickly: It’s time to break out the Ferrari again.
You’ll remember those were Sale’s own words last season, referring to maximizing his velocity. In early May, he told pitching coach Dana LeVangie he was sick of riding around in a Suburban and started throwing hard.
Even if his changeup and slider need fine-tuning, an amped-up fastball can alleviate a lot of other issues. And Sale certainly still has gas in the tank.
With a history of second-half slides, the Red Sox have been very cautious with Sale’s speed. Trying to emphasize a gradual build — Sale will tell you it’s like a plane taking off — his fastball averaged 92 mph in March and April, and has sat at 94 mph in every month since.
He can still throw harder when he wants to. That doesn’t seem to be a question. After allowing five runs in three innings to the White Sox on June 26, Sale got frustrated. It showed on the radar gun.
“Once I got a little (ticked) off and started just getting after it, it changed a little bit, the dynamic of the game,” Sale said. “A little bit of that and just trusting my stuff and just trying to fill the strike zone.”
Sale hit at least 96 mph 12 times in the next three innings and didn’t allow another baserunner, striking out six of his final nine batters. That wasn’t coincidence.
When he takes the ball this weekend against the Dodgers, Sale will have gone a calendar year without a regular season win at Fenway Park. Yes, he’s taken a couple of tough-luck losses, but that absolutely can’t happen for an ace.
After obeying the speed limit in first half, it’s time for Sale to grab the keys and fire up the Ferrari.
Of course there’s risk. He could burn out by October. But if Sale doesn’t starting pitching like himself again, there won’t be any October for the Red Sox to worry about.
Chris Mason is a Red Sox beat writer for the Gloucester Daily Times and CNHI Sports Boston. Email him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter at @ByChrisMason.