By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- After returning to the Red Sox' rotation in mid-August from Tommy John surgery, Chris Sale faced a lighter load than one might expect for an ace who's annually in the Cy Young conversation. For a pitcher rediscovering himself after missing a year and a half, that surely made a lot of sense.
But on Friday night in Tampa, there's no more room for taking it easy. The Red Sox will need Sale to be Sale, or else their season may crumble. The Red Sox aren't really built to come back from a 2-0 hole in a best-of-five series against the 100-win Rays.
On the flip side, if Sale is Sale, then there will be a whole lot of optimism in Boston as the series heads to Fenway Park this weekend, tied at one game apiece, with Nathan Eovaldi waiting for his Game 3 start.
As for how Sale will do on Friday night, there's equal reasons for optimism and doubt.
On the plus side, he faced the Rays in Tampa on Sept. 1, allowing two runs over six innings. He wasn't at his best that night, surrendering six hits and two walks while striking out just three, but he minimized the damage on the scoreboard, and he bridged the gap to Garrett Whitlock and Adam Ottavino in the 3-2 win.
Certainly, the Red Sox would take another start like that from the lefty. But his work after that game creates some doubt.
In his very next outing, Sale was staked to a 7-1 lead at Fenway over the Rays, but he couldn't get out of the fourth inning. An error by Alex Verdugo blew up his outing, but that error came after Sale had allowed three consecutive two-out singles. Sale then allowed two more singles after the three-run error, getting lifted for Whitlock. The Red So eventually lost, 11-10.
Sale then lasted just five innings with one strikeout while allowing a run against the Orioles, the worst team in baseball. He allowed two runs over five innings to the Mets, three runs over 5.1 innings against the Orioles, before really coming up short in the must-win season finale in Washington. Sale recorded just even outs on Sunday, allowing two runs off four hits and three walks. He did record all seven of his outs via strikeout, but his outing ended when he walked in a run to give Washington a 2-0 lead. The numbers would have been even uglier, if not for Hirokazu Sawamura inducing a double play to get out of the bases-loaded jam.
Put it all together, and the 2021 version of Chris Sale looks nothing like the Sale who dominated the American League from 2011-18. He did go 5-1, but he had a 3.16 ERA despite facing some weak competition. One of his two duds came against the Rays, and the other came Sunday in a gotta-have-it situation.
It all sets up for an intriguing game on Friday night. If Sale can tap into his inner Sale, then Boston has a real chance of winning Game 2. Sale will be opposed by Shane Baz, who was very effective in the final weeks of the season ... but has nevertheless made just three MLB appearances in his young career.
Baz did have a 2.06 ERA in 17 starts across Double-A and Triple-A this year, so his MLB success (2-0, 2.03 ERA) is likely no coincidence. Still, the playoffs can be a different animal.
Though the results have been less than perfect for Sale to this point, his past and his approach have Red Sox manager Alex Cora feeling comfortable heading in to Game 2.
"We're good. We're good. I love the at-bats [in Game 1]," Cora said. "Like I said, you know, we put some pressure on them. They made some plays. We hit some balls hard, but we got Chris, and he is ready to go. So the bullpen is rested, so we should be OK."
For Sale's part, he never hides from his poor outings, and that remained the case when he discussed Sunday's start in Washington.
"I did absolutely nothing to help our team win. I actually put us in a horrendous spot in that game," Sale said Thursday. "Being down late in the game, coming back, rallying back, that was huge. I was obviously very appreciative of that because that would have been a not fun last game of the year. They ended up rallying up and giving us home field advantage [for the Wild Card game]. I mean, we saw the scoreboard. We know what the deal was. We knew our backs were up against the wall to win that game, and to be able to do that, tell yourself, hey, we have to win this game, and then proceed to win that game says a lot about who we have in this clubhouse, who is leading this team, and what we can do when it's a necessity."
Sale knows his teammates picked him up on Sunday, and given his mentality, you know that he'll be looking to repay the favor on Friday night.
Whether or not he can pull it off may dictate whether this surprising Red Sox run continues, or whether it dies with a fizzle.
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