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Viewpoint Sale ready for his close-up in Game 1

October 5, 2018

BOSTON — The Red Sox gathered for a team meal Wednesday night, and a day later here was their manager recalling how cool it was to have a bunch of big leaguers watching a baseball game together.

It was fun. It was relaxing. Tony La Russa was there, Cora said, so there were plenty of October stories to swap. That’s when Liam Hendriks challenged Aaron Judge with a fastball in the first inning of the wild-card game in the Bronx.

“Everybody was like, ‘Whoa!’ ” Cora said. “He crushed that ball.”

Judge crushed it into next week. Later, in the eighth inning of New York’s 7-2 rout of the Oakland A’s, Giancarlo Stanton crushed another ball into next month. So when asked about stopping the Yankees in this five-game ALDS, Cora answered repeatedly, “We have to keep them in the ballpark.”

Cora started talking about heat maps and the red and the blue. Oh, there’s one white-hot heat map with the Yankees and Red Sox. It’s the one that examines fan loyalties along the Munson-Nixon Line in Connecticut. That’s not what Cora meant. He was talking about the red of strike-zone damage a hitter does.

“We have to pitch to blue,” Cora said. “If we do that, we’re going to be in good shape.”

Nobody has pitched more effectively to blue against the Yankees in 2018 than Chris Sale. Over 13 innings, the lanky lefty has allowed one run and struck out 19. The last time he faced them, in late June, he allowed one hit over seven scoreless innings.

So, Sale was asked, can you talk about your success against the Yankees?

“No,” he answered.

Seeing that Sale gave expansive answers to every other question, including the more sensitive ones about his 2017 postseason failure and dipped velocity in his last start, his message was clear: He only wants to take care of business.

“I don’t care what I have on a given day, I should be able to find a way with whatever I have,” Sale said. “Sometimes you go out there and you have your best. Sometimes you don’t. This is sport. This is baseball. I take the ball tomorrow. I expect to win.”

I will argue Chris Sale is the most important performer in this first postseason series between the teams since 2004. Yes, Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are vital for the Red Sox. Yes, Judge and Stanton are vital for a Yankees lineup that has struck more home runs than any team in history. There are a hundred nuanced things we can discuss heading into Game 1 on Friday night at Fenway. The Red Sox outfield led by Jackie Bradley Jr. is so good defensively, Sale said, it feels like there are four guys out there, and there’s something wrong with the system if JBJ doesn’t win the Gold Glove. And what about Gary Sanchez behind the plate. Will he be sound enough to prevent the Red Sox from causing havoc on the base paths?

Yet in the end, the Red Sox rely on the strength of their starters. And with an iffy bullpen heading into the postseason, Sale, who stands to start Games 1 and 5, is positioned to put the biggest stamp on the 2018 ALDS.

That’s why his two recent bullpen sessions were dissected like actual season starts. Because of the rain, his first one Tuesday was held inside at the Fenway batting cages. Sale wasn’t satisfied. He took the unusual route of another bullpen session Wednesday.

“I wanted to get on the actual mound outside,” he said.

Cora said he had no intention of stepping in between Sale and his preparation. After a lights-out first half, Sale has been on a curious journey in his recovery from shoulder inflammation. He returned from the DL on Aug. 12 with a strong 68-pitch, one-hit outing over five scoreless innings. Yet he immediately went back on the DL for a month and was brought along carefully with outings of 26, 42, 73 pitches. All looked good, but in his last start on Sept. 26, he allowed three runs in 4 2/3 innings to the Orioles and his fastball velocity dipped to a season-low 90.3 mph. He averaged 96 mph.

“The extended period of time off allowed me to get a little more work in,” Sale said. “Work on using my legs, driving a little bit more. Getting a little more rotational with my lower half and staying stronger with my top half. And to sharpen the tools. Work on both sides of the plate up and down, mixing speeds.”

With a formidable slider and change, with velocity separation in his repertoire, Sale doesn’t need to throw 99 mph. He’s still a great pitcher, Cora said. Yet being able to reach back for the gasoline when most needed is huge. Without it, Red Sox fans fret. Then again, even with three World Series titles since 2004, Red Sox fans fret about everything.

“We don’t play the game for anything else,” Sale said of the postseason. “I’m not worried about this or that. I know I’ve got somewhere around 100 pitches to cover and it’s going to be everything I’ve got in all those pitches.”

“He’s a full go,” Cora said. “He’s ready to roll. He’s very excited. We’re excited, too.”

Sale didn’t get a chance to pitch in the postseason with the White Sox. That wasn’t his fault. Last year, however, did not go well. He was 0-2 against the Astros in the ALDS, four home runs and nine earned runs in 9 2/3 innings. He wanted no part of talk that he could erase all that with a terrific outing against the Yankees.

“I’m not trying to erase anything … it’s not going to help me this year, next year and definitely not tomorrow,” Sale said. “It happened. I’m not going to run away from it. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I realize the mistakes I made and try to learn from it. I’m not going to hide from it. You can Google it now, tomorrow and 100 years and it’s going to be there. I own it. I accept it. I’m going to be better. That’s all I can do.”

This series will be nothing if not a barrage of social media insults between fan bases and amusing statements by Red Sox special assistant Pedro Martinez. Petey tweeted Sale has had plenty of time “for the medicine to kick in.” Cora has said he didn’t know if Sale had a cortisone shot.

“Obviously, it’s something I didn’t like,” Sale said about his shoulder problems, skirting Pedro’s tweet. “I didn’t want to go through it. But it’s life. It happens.”

And sometimes life is heat maps and Game 1 vs. the Yankees.

“What else do you want?” Sale said. “One of the biggest rivalries in sports ever. It’s what we signed up for.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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