When Chris Sale took the mound on Monday night against the Cleveland Indians, his assignment was a familiar one: He had to protect a three-run lead.
He's had that job before, albeit with a slight difference. This time, he had 27 outs remaining, not three.
Sale had a lot more work left than usual, but nobody can say it overwhelmed him. He threw 6 2/3 innings of one-run ball, and with the way the game played out, it perfectly illustrated why never giving Sale the opportunity to start would have been a big mistake.
Sale, Matt Thornton, Addison Reed and Hector Santiago all pitched with a three-run lead on Monday night. The first three were considered favorites for the closer job at one point in the recent past, and Santiago actually holds the title now.
With nobody used to closing and all leads being equal, endurance is the real variable. Ask the question, "Out of these four pitchers, which one could hold that lead the longest?" Sale would be undoubtedly the best bet, and so it's a no-doubt decision to push him into an expanded role. If Sale stands a reasonable chance of being trustworthy for six innings, limiting him to one would be a major waste of his talent.
After his successful debut, some skeptics have warmed up to the decision:
The decision to start Sale wasn't "wildly popular" originally, as he could have closed. But CWS certainly are happy now ~— Scott Merkin (@scottmerkin) April 10, 2012
Given the first clause of that tweet, it leaves room to wonder what the reaction would have been if the Indians knocked Sale out in the third inning (I know what one would have looked like). Thankfully, Sale's strong performance and some convenient run margins make no further explanation necessary at this time.
Speaking of closers, Sergio Santos never allowed a run in April as a member of the White Sox. With the Blue Jays, he has blown his first two save opportunities, including a particularly ugly meltdown against the Red Sox on Monday. He retired just two of the seven batters he faced (two hits, three walks), and he was removed from the game before he could get the third out.
It's a development worth noticing for a few reasons.
The simple reason: For those of us who believe most closers are interchangeable, it's kind of neat that Santiago is 2-for-2 in save situations while Santos is 0-for-2 -- not that it means a lot. There will probably be a two-game sample where the reverse is true. At this point, it's merely interesting.
The timely reason: What's most relevant about this particular blown save is that, watching video of the go-ahead hit, Boston third base coach Jerry Royster made an aggressive decision by waving Darnell McDonald home with two outs. Jose Bautista made a good throw from right, but J.P. Arencibia couldn't handle it. McDonald scored, the Red Sox took the lead, and they came out with the win. So, that's further support for the idea that it pays for third base coaches to take risks with two outs.
The just-throwing-it-out-there reason: I'm curious to watch how Santos will respond to slumps with a new organization. He's only been a pitcher for three years, and Don Cooper is the only pitching coach who has worked with him for any real length of time over his career. Also, A.J. Pierzynski had a pretty keen gauge on Santos' rhythm, and knew when he needed to make a mound visit to help Santos dial it down.
Given his unusual background, there's a possibility that the Sox know his mechanics better than he does, because they basically assembled him from a kit. Now that he's around people who haven't seen him at his worst, will he be able to correct himself as easily? I imagine he'll be fine, but Santos' rise was such an unlikely, sudden success story that maybe an uncontrolled environment (relatively speaking) could affect him more than most.