BOSTON — You might think four runs of support in five starts would send Chris Sale into a jersey-cutting rage in the Boston Red Sox clubhouse. But the ace lefty pointed blame only himself for another hard-luck defeat Thursday night.
The popular narrative, especially after Thursday night’s 3-0 blanking by New York Yankees ace Masahiro Tanaka, is that the Sox don’t score for Sale. And they don’t. Sale has a 1.19 ERA and leads the majors with 52 strikeouts. He’s the most dominant pitcher Fenway has seen since Pedro Martinez. But the lanky lefty also has only one win, and Boston is just 3-2 in the games he has started.
But the truth is, the Red Sox don’t score for any of their starting pitchers. Not enough, at least. After producing 101 more runs than the second-best offense in the American League last season, the Sox have scored 78 runs, tied with the 6-16 Toronto Blue Jays for the second-lowest total in the league. Only the lowly Kansas City Royals, with their 7-14 record, have scored fewer.
So, while Sale has every reason to gripe — for the record, he magnanimously pinned Thursday night’s loss on himself, even though the Red Sox mustered three hits against Tanaka, who was masterful in a 97-pitch shutout — the offense lacks punch more often than merely every fifth day.
“What’s been different?” Bogaerts said, the star shortstop repeating the end of a question comparing the first 21 games of this season to last year. “I mean, David’s not here. He’s definitely one of the huge parts of our team for the year that I’ve been here. We definitely miss him.”
Give Bogaerts points for honesty, even if it isn’t what Red Sox want to hear. Ortiz retired after last season, and president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski had an entire winter to try to replace him. He passed, mindful of wanting to bring the payroll in below the $195 million luxury tax threshold after three consecutive years above it.
Sale was the biggest name the Red Sox could have acquired in the offseason, and Dombrowski made the move to get him. The Red Sox figured the drop-off in run production without Ortiz would be neutralized by allowing fewer runs with Sale in the starting rotation. In time, that calculation might work out.
For now, there’s a gaping hole in the middle of the order. The Red Sox have hit only 11 home runs, the fewest in the majors, and lack a slugger who makes opposing pitchers quake just by stepping into the on-deck circle.
Big Papi did that, right up until the final at-bat of his career.
“We’ve got to do it without him,” Bogaerts said. “We’re trying. We’re trying to put up good at-bats, trying to get guys on base. But having that [No.] 34 in the lineup is something that opposing pitchers definitely were afraid of.”
Here’s the thing: Ortiz isn’t coming back. By all accounts, he’s content in retirement. He has plenty of projects to keep him busy, from his charitable work in New England to the baseball academy he hopes to build in the Dominican Republic.
Without Ortiz, the margin for error for Sale has been so slim that getting crossed up with catcher Sandy Leon on a pitch that resulted in a passed ball in the fourth inning was enough to beat the Red Sox. It hardly mattered that Sale, who struck out seven of the first nine Yankees batters and 10 overall, gave up two runs on three consecutive singles in the ninth inning.
Sale joined Roger Clemens, Martinez and Jon Lester as the only Red Sox pitchers with at least 10 strikeouts in four consecutive starts. But he has taken the mound with a lead in only four of the 37⅔ innings he has pitched.
“No, the only frustration would be toward myself,” Sale said. “I know what I need to do, and I just need to be better at it.”
It’s hard to imagine Sale being any better. The Red Sox’s offense, on the other hand? Without Ortiz, things have to improve.
“He’ll be gone,” Bogaerts said. “We miss him, but we’re going to get runs, you know? We’re going to keep scoring. We’re not going to get shut out or one run every game. Offense just probably needs one game, boom, 12 runs, 15 runs. Like the Washington Nationals. They’ve been scoring double-digit runs these past few games, and hopefully we can do the same like that. We’ll break loose.”
Or else the Red Sox may want to hide the scissors from Sale.