Orfao: Red Sox need Sale to find Cy Young form in playoffs

  • Boston Red Sox's Chris Sale gets the ball during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Toronto Blue Jays in Boston, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) Michael Dwyer—AP

  • Chris Sale sits in the dugout after he gave up three runs during the fifth inning of Tuesday’s loss. AP

Monitor staff
Thursday, October 19, 2017

It seemed there wasn’t much history left to conquer for the Boston Red Sox.

Since the Curse of the Bambino was lifted in 2004, the once floundering franchise has collected two more World Series titles and completed the transformation from lovable loser to baseball behemoth.

There is still some evidence of previous nightmares, though: Boston hasn’t won consecutive AL East titles since the inception of divisions in 1969. Regardless of format, the Red Sox haven’t finished atop the standings in consecutive years since 1915-16. Thanks in large part to the pitching of Rick Porcello in 2016 and Chris Sale in 2017, Boston is on the verge of crossing that off the list of the ballclub’s not-so-fun facts.

It would be a nice accomplishment for the franchise, but we all know there are no parades thrown for division winners. The AL East crown felt quite hollow last season following a three-game sweep against the banged-up but ready-for-battle Cleveland Indians in the ALDS.

Red Sox fans hope the team can avoid a similar fate in the 2017 playoffs, but Boston’s chances hinge on whether its undisputed ace will perform like one in the postseason.

During the first four months of his Red Sox career, Sale was building a legitimate case for MVP honors. But Sale’s shaky August and September stopped the MVP talk and even weakened his chances at what once seemed like a sure-fire Cy Young Award.

Sale’s recent numbers should alarm the Boston faithful, especially those who didn’t trust David Price in 2016 or have lost complete faith in Rick Porcello this year.

Since Aug. 1, Sale has posted a 4.09 ERA while serving up 13 home runs over 11 starts. The overpaid and underwhelming Price was actually a better performer during the final two months of 2016 – 3.54 ERA, 14 HR in 13 starts. It’s even more concerning that Porcello, who doesn’t deserve a spot in the playoff rotation, has been only marginally worse than Sale down the stretch with a 4.65 ERA and an identical 13 home runs surrendered during his final 11 starts.

The trend would incite less anxiety if this was a one-year instance for Sale, who joined Pedro Martinez as the only pitchers in franchise history with 300-plus strikeouts in a single season. However, the career splits divulge another red flag for the Red Sox ace.

Sale’s ERA is traditionally terrific in April (2.91), May (2.57), June (2.66) and July (2.66); but his effectiveness drops in August (3.22) and September (3.78). He leads the league in innings pitched and a marathon season appears to be taking its toll.

Baseball is fickle and Sale certainly has the talent to single-handedly win a game – or even a playoff series. He’s delivered starts of six and eight shutout innings this month, so the left-handed hurler is still flashing the ability to dominate. The consistency, however, simply hasn’t been there.

Back-to-back division titles would be nice, but Sale’s late-season swoon coupled with his track record creates a bright, blinking caution sign obstructing October optimism.

Chalk it up as a little more history the Red Sox will have to conquer.

(Jason Orfao can be reached at 369-3338, jorfao@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @JasonOrfao.)