Red Sox vs. Astros ALCS: Shaky Chris Sale bends but never really breaks in Game 1

BOSTON -- It would be difficult to find a better Game 1 pitching matchup than Chris Sale vs. Justin Verlander, which was offered up by the Boston Red Sox and Houston Astros on Saturday night. The two clubs opened the ALCS at Fenway Park in what is only the third-ever postseason series between two 103-plus win teams. The Astros won the ALCS opener 7-2 (box score).

Sale, while working on three days rest following his one-inning relief appearance in ALDS Game 4, needed 86 laborious pitches to navigate four innings against the Astros on Saturday. That he escaped with only two runs allowed felt like a minor miracle.

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Chris Sale BOS • SP • 41
2018 ALCS Game 1 vs. Astros
IP4
H1
R2
ER2
BB4
K5
HBP1

"It was a struggle for him tonight," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said following Game 1, stating the obvious.

Four walks match Sale's season high and, prior to Saturday night, only three times had he issued four walks and hit a batter in a big-league game. Game 1 was the first time he did it while throwing fewer than six innings. Furthermore, all four walks and the hit batsman came within the first 12 batters of the game. They were not scattered.

With two outs in the second inning, Sale sandwiched two walks around the hit-by-pitch before giving up a two-run ground ball single to George Springer. The Astros had Sale on the ropes early -- Joe Kelly started to warm up in the bullpen following the single -- but he was able to escape the second inning without further damage and retire the final five batters he faced.

For the Red Sox, there were red flags abound. Sale had little control, first of all. He threw more balls (31) than strikes (29) through his first 60 pitches and was generally all over the place. He was missing the glove consistently and sometimes significantly, particularly with his fastball, which often indicates overthrowing.

Why was Sale possibly overthrowing? Possibly because he was amped up in a postseason game -- it happens to the best of us -- but also possibly because his fastball velocity was down, and he was reaching back for whatever was left in the tank. Sale's fastball averaged 92 mph in Game 1 and topped out at 96 mph. It cracked 94 mph only a handful of times.

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Chris Sale's velocity was down across the board again in ALCS Game 1. Baseball Savant

"I know he's coming off injury, but it doesn't matter if that guy is coming off injury or if he's pitching at the top of his game. He's tough. He's a competitor," said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman following Game 1. "It's not a comfortable at-bat ever. He's one of the best pitchers in the game. I don't care what anyone says about his velo being down or whatever. He's one of the best pitchers in the game."  

Sale's velocity has been down quite a bit since his second stint on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation a few weeks ago. In fact, in his final regular season start, his average fastball velocity (90.2 mph) was his lowest in any game in his career. Some velocity returned in his ALDS Game 1 start, but it was still down from his established norm. Sale can be effective at 91-94 mph. At 97-99 mph though, he's a monster.

"Early in the game it was off," Cora said. "But at the end you saw it 93, 94. He finished strong ... I think he threw three good sliders in the third inning to finish off and then the last inning was a lot better. So velocity-wise he finished strong."

Between the crummy command and missing velocity, not to mention the fact the Astros have a very good offense, Sale had an awfully tough time missing bats in Game 1. He generated only two swings and misses with his first 69 pitches and finished with six swings and misses among his 86 pitches. That ties his season low, which was set in what amounted to a one-inning rehab start in his first game back from the disabled list.

"His velo, you could tell he was down a little bit. He still found ways to get outs," said Josh Reddick. "It's just a lot easier when he's 91, 92, 93 as opposed to 97. He's not a comfortable at-bat, but he's finding ways to get outs. Any time he's not going to be 100 percent you feel like you've got an advantage."

A bad start can be just a bad start. They happen to even the best pitchers and sometimes at unfortunate times, like in the postseason. Given his recent shoulder trouble and his history of ostensibly wearing down late in the season, Sale's showing in ALCS Game 1 could very well be more warning sign than anomaly. The control wasn't there, the velocity wasn't there, the ability to miss bats wasn't there.

Keep in mind Sale did pitch in relief in Game 4 of the ALDS on Tuesday night. He threw only 13 pitches in a 1-2-3 inning in that game, so it wasn't a taxing relief appearance, but it was still game action three days following the Game 1 start. It was more intense than the typical between-starts bullpen session. Because of that relief appearance, Sale may have taken the mound with something less than a full tank Saturday night, though he brushed that off Friday.

"I think we're at the point now where there's no holding back. There's no limitations," Sale said. "Like I said before, it's all hands on deck. We're here to win. We've got to do whatever it takes to get there. I think you can ask anybody in that clubhouse or on that coaching staff, they'll do about anything it takes to get there. Whether it's this or that, doesn't matter, I think everybody's prepared to do whatever it takes to get to that level."

That Sale still limited the Astros to only two runs -- and one hit -- in four grind-it-out innings Saturday night is a testament to his resolve and pitching acumen. He was out there with something far from his Grade-A stuff -- it was more like his Grade-D stuff, really -- and he still got outs. That all said, to get through the Astros, the Red Sox will need a better version of Sale later in the ALCS, assuming he gets to take the ball again.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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