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Chris Sale fades into the postseason

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September struggles carry into October, leading to disappointing playoff debut

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v Houston Astros - Game One Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Chris Sale waited seven years for his first taste of postseason baseball. Now he has to wait for a chance to erase the aftertaste.

By game score, it was tied for the second-worst start by a Red Sox pitcher in the franchise’s postseason. Sale can thank the White Sox for rocking Matt Clement hard enough in Game 1 of the 2005 ALDS, which made Clement one point worse.

The line: 5+ IP, 9 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 3 HR

The signatures: Back-to-back homers in the first inning, a second one by Jose Altuve, and failing to retire either batter he faced in the sixth inning.

The quote: “Like I said, just got to be better. No excuses. Bad time to suck. Like I said, take it off the chin and be back here tomorrow working my nuts off, ready to go."

It’s just one game, so it shouldn’t skew the scales all that much. But as far as individual games go, it weighs about as much as one can for a trade like this. The Red Sox won the AL East last season, so it’s not like Boston acquired Sale to get to the postseason. They brought him in to advance into the postseason, and instead he continued his career-long habit of late-season fades. Since August, he’s only thrown five quality starts out of his last 12. Those five starts have been incredible -- only one run total — but that’s a lot of mediocrity elsewhere.

The postseason offered a chance for extended rest and a reset, but it didn’t make much of a difference. The velocity was there, but the sharpness of his breaking ball -- both in terms of location and bite — disappeared too frequently.

As one might guess, the media isn’t taking it well. Here’s the Boston’s Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy:

Sale was going to be different from softie teammates David Price and Rick Porcello, who both spit the bit inthe playoffs last year. He was going to bring back memories of the badass October days of Pedro Martinez, Crazy Schill, and gunslinging Josh Beckett. He was going to be impervious to playoff pressure. He was going to dominate. He was going to throw bullets until his arm fell off and then come back on three days’ rest and dominate again.

But no. None of that happened. Sale was no different than Porcello in 2016. or Price in any playoff start of the last 10 years.

In fact, Sale was worse. His Thursday afternoon outing in Game 1 of the ALDS almost made you long for the golden days of Price and Porcello getting punked by the Tribe in 2016.

And here’s the Boston Herald’s Mark Silverman:

Sale, after all, pitched like Pedro Martinez in the first half before stumbling down the stretch with a concerning mix of very good to very bad starts.

But the plan, you see, was that the extra rest before the playoffs was supposed to make all the difference for a pitcher who traditionally fades in September. Plus, many of us reasoned, Sale's warrior complex inoculated him from a playoff flop.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

A No. 1 starter, Cy Young-caliber or not, is not worth much if he can't pitch like one in October.

And here’s WEEI’s Rob Bradford giving Sale the “this guy” treatment:

By the time Sale found himself trudging through that last inning, the debate of him pitching a potential Game 4 really seemed secondary. Not so much because there was absolutely no chance the Red Sox could win a game in this series, but more due to the lack of faith that this guy can become the pitcher his team needs him to be.

Columnists shouldn’t be used as the sole measuring stick, and the comments at Over the Monster are resisting the choking narrative. However, while the tenor of the arguments differ, they share a lot of the same subject material. There’s plenty of second-guessing over the handling of Sale, and whether John Farrell overused him in the second half in the pursuit of 300 strikeouts. As the Providence Journal put it:

The Red Sox have left the door open to bring Sale back in Game Four on three days’ rest, should the series dictate that. At the same time, Sale’s ERA since the start of August is 4.69; he’s allowed seven runs in a game three times in 12 starts in that span. The Sox believed during the summer that they were building in safeguards to prevent the kind of late-season fade that had bedeviled Sale for much of his career in Chicago. It is obvious now that they didn’t.

No matter how harshly and personally Sale’s dud is received, the result is the same: September and October will hover over the proceedings throughout the 2018 season. Porcello and Price are right there as evidence (with Price proving why Sale is smart to stay off social media).

This was front-of-mind for me entering the season, just because I wanted to know whether the Sox and Robin Ventura did anything wrong with their handling of him. That late-fade habit was the only blemish on the Condor’s otherwise impeccable performance on the South Side, and an easy patch would’ve been a blow to the White Sox brain trust.

The Red Sox failed to answer that question, because Sale worked just as hard in Boston — 32 starts, 107 pitches per start, more pitches per inning — as he did in Chicago. So far, the only thing we know is, if the White Sox made any avoidable mistakes with their handling of Sale, they’re not the only team that would do it.

This doesn’t mean the White Sox won the trade, because Sale pitching his original team to the postseason would have been a sizable accomplishment no matter how it ended. As long as Sale maintains his level of performance, the White Sox will need Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech playing October baseball — for them — before a victory can be claimed.

If Sale can’t salvage his 2017 postseason, though, it buys the White Sox some peace and patience for the following year. Sale had a typically Sale season with a better team and yet dissatisfaction still hangs heavy, so the result further validates the White Sox’ search for a less Sale-centric approach to sustainable success. Moncada and Kopech will have to play their parts to validate the trade as a whole, but at least Sale hasn’t raised the expectations.