BOSTON — Chris Sale has been so over-the-top dominant during his first season with the Boston Red Sox that he has evoked comparisons to peak Pedro Martinez. From the overpowering fastball and the collection of double-digit strikeout games to the unmistakable swagger on the mound, it all looks so familiar.
And then there’s this: Like Martinez before him, Sale has trouble beating the New York Yankees.
It’s entirely counterintuitive. Entering Saturday night’s game at Fenway Park, Sale had a 1.18 ERA in 13 career games (10 starts) against the Yankees. In three previous starts against them this season, he had given up only three earned runs and struck out 35 batters in 22⅔ innings. Yet the Red Sox were only 1-2 in those games, and Sale got a no-decision in the lone victory, a 10-inning affair last Sunday night in New York.
But with three series in four weekends this month between the teams, the Red Sox rearranged their rotation to make sure their ace would pitch in each one. And after a come-from-behind victory Friday night that stretched Boston’s lead in the American League East to five games, Sale had a chance to bury the Yankees by flummoxing them again Saturday night.
Instead, Sale was outpitched by CC Sabathia, who was making his first start since coming off the disabled list. Sale gave up a three-run homer to rookie Tyler Austin in the second inning and a solo shot to former teammate Todd Frazier in the sixth before the Yankees’ bullpen — with Aroldis Chapman having been removed from the closer’s role — bent but never broke in a 4-3 victory that evened the three-game series.
“It’s a big win for us, and it’s kind of a big loss for them,” Sabathia said. “Because they need to win the games [Sale] is out there.”
Usually, the Red Sox do. Despite having provided scant run support for Sale at times, they are 18-7 in his starts. Against the Yankees, though, they are 1-3 and would be winless if not for rookie Rafael Devers‘ ninth-inning homer against Chapman last Sunday night.
“[Sale has] pitched really well against us,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “I think the credit has to go to our pitching staff and what they’ve done.”
Sale was outdueled by Masahiro Tanaka on April 27, Luis Severino on July 15 and now Sabathia — all at Fenway. But the Yankees also have a sound offensive approach against Sale, running up his pitch count by grinding out at-bats and working deep counts.
That was the formula all those years against Pedro. From 1998 to 2004, Martinez made 27 regular-season starts against the Yankees. And although he had a 3.30 ERA and 230 strikeouts in 180 innings, he was only 9-10 against them and the Red Sox won only 10 of the 27 games.
On Saturday night, the Yankees made Sale throw 20 pitches in the first inning and 21 more in the second. After Chase Headley saw eight pitches to lead off the second inning, Didi Gregorius stroked a first-pitch double and Frazier got hit by a pitch. Austin, a 25-year-old who just returned to the lineup after sitting out six weeks because of a hamstring strain, hit a 96 mph fastball out to left field to open a 3-0 lead and wipe away any hangover from the bullpen blowing a three-run lead just one night earlier.
Was it the biggest hit of Austin’s brief career? Considering the circumstances, there’s no doubt.
“It was pretty special to give us an early lead like that,” Austin said. “All night against him I was just looking for a fastball. I just tried to stay on the fastball as much as I could. His breaking pitches are really, really good, so I didn’t ever want to get to that. Like I said, it was a special moment.”
The Yankees kept working Sale, putting runners on base in each of the next three innings. The Red Sox had narrowed the margin to 3-2 by the sixth inning when Frazier got hold of a slider and barely got it out to left-center field.
“It’s just one of those things where I got him and that’s it. And he’ll say the same thing,” said Frazier, a friend to Sale from their days as teammates with the Chicago White Sox. “It was actually a really good pitch, and I just caught him at the right time. We’ll probably talk about it over a beer later down the road in a couple years. One of those things.”
Before the game, Sabathia walked through the Yankees’ clubhouse wearing a T-shirt with “Yogi” printed across the front. It should have served as a reminder that, as Yogi Berra once said, nothing is ever over until it’s over — including an AL East race that won’t be decided by two emotional come-from-behind Red Sox victories over the Yankees in the span of five days.
By beating Sale, the Yankees trimmed the margin back to four games. If they win the rubber game Sunday, it might help assure that a Labor Day weekend series between the teams at Yankee Stadium will be meaningful.
Sale is slated to pitch in that series, too. And while he’s not yet ready to tip his cap and call the Yankees his daddy, as Martinez memorably conceded in 2004, it’s clear he must figure out a way to finally beat them.
“That’s the fun part of baseball, that cat and mouse, the back and forth,” Sale said. “That’s why we call it a game of adjustments. They adjusted a little better than I did, so just get back on it tomorrow and get after it.”