Despite pitching problems, Red Sox keep rocking

BOSTON. Chris Sale lingered at his locker in Fenway Park for about a minute Saturday afternoon, just long enough to shake hands and thank the visitor for wishing him well. He scurried between the field and the gym, slipped a new shirt over his cane body with a SALE tattoo between his shoulder blades, and off he went.

“Working day,” he said, smiling.

Sale, a seven-time All-Star who gave Boston victory in the 2018 World Series by strikeout, hasn’t worked much on the hill lately. Tommy John’s surgery has wiped out most of the last two seasons, and a chest injury has cost him over half of 2022. Last week he trashed an AAA earth tunnel in Worcester during rehab but paid for the damage and said he acted like an idiot.

“Who is perfect?” Sale told Boston reporters in a dugout on Thursday. “Name it. I would like to shake his hand.”

Sale could have walked across the field and shook hands with the Yankees, who were as perfect as a baseball team can be. The Yankees were 61-24 through Sunday night’s series finale with the Red Sox, an 85-game start record that the team has surpassed only twice in franchise history. These previous teams, in 1939 and 1998, won the World Series.

The Yankees missed Sale over the weekend – he’s due back on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays – and faced three rookies through Sunday. The Red Sox, who also started as a rookie shortly before the Yankees arrived, had not started four straight rookies since September 1945. Ted Williams was in Hawaii that month, waiting to be discharged from the Marine Corps after helping win World War II.

So, yes, it’s been a while since the Red Sox were in such a predicament. But their rotation was vulnerable all the time; injured veterans – Sale, Nate Eovaldi (back), Rich Hill (knee), Michael Vacha (shoulder) – have rarely proved resilient, and younger player Garrett Whitlock (thigh) will return as an assistant.

Consider that exhaustion and the fact that the Red Sox somehow lost all eight series to the American League East this season before the Yankees came to town. You would expect them to stumble over fifth last place since 2012, right? (Search it.)

But after Saturday 6-5 win in 10 innings, the Red Sox took the top spot in the AL with a 46–39 record.

“We’ve worked so hard to get to this point and I think there’s really only one team in the league that’s playing outstanding baseball – and we’re playing them right now,” manager Alex Cora said. “The rest are in the same situation. There are a few teams that are gaining momentum and they are being talked about right now, but we look at the standings and I know that the season will not end today, but if it ends today, we are in a dance. So look at the positives.”

On a positive note, the offense can still be a mess, second only to the Yankees in runs per game among AL teams. The Red Sox lost Thursday and Friday but stomped on Gerrit Cole and Nestor Cortez by nine runs in nine and two-thirds of an innings. On Saturday, they returned to crash the Yankees’ bullpen.

It was the first time in 49 games this season that the Yankees lost after seven innings, and their fans felt bolder in enemy territory. When Aaron Judge doubled in 10th to give the Yankees the lead, “MVP!” cheers polluted the air. The Red Sox noticed.

“You could hear it even today, the Yankee fans chanted and chanted,” said outfielder Alex Verdugo, whose two-run single won the game. “It was very loud for a Yankee, right? It seemed to me that the Yankee fans were suppressing Boston’s voice a bit. It’s one of those things, for me it was like, “We have to get this back.” This is our house. Here we play. This is not their field.”

Verdugo rode behind former Yankee Rob Refsnyder (he hit .344 on Saturday) and rookie Jeter Downes, who rolled a single to right in the 10th inning of the rally for his first major league hit. He’s the namesake, yes Derek Jeter, who texted Downs when he played his first game in June.

“He tweeted me and said, ‘Good luck, but not against the Yankees,'” Downes said, noting that his first hit, run, and run now came on Jeter’s old team. “You can’t write a better story.”

The Red Sox acquired Verdugo, Downes and Connor Wong, the Worcester catcher, in a deal that saw Mookie Betts move to the Los Angeles Dodgers in February 2020. 50 T-shirts, and they’re not for Saturday’s starter, Cutter Crawford.

The betting exchange will sting for a while and sparks an underlying fear here about the future of other homegrown stars. Shortstop Xander Bogarts could opt out of his contract this fall, and third baseman Rafael Devers could become a free agent after next season. The Red Sox recently cut their payroll and have other options on the field: second baseman Trevor Storey, who signed a six-year contract in March, and top prospect Marcelo Mayer, a low-A shortstop.

“It’s not entirely up to me,” Devers said through a translator on Saturday when asked about signing long-term deals with the Red Sox. “But I don’t know any other team. I love this city, I love my teammates, I love my coaches. So, yes, of course, I would like to be here. But in the end, it’s out of my hands.”

According to the data, Devers hit .327 with 19 homers and led the AL in wins without a substitution until Saturday. Baseball Handbook. On Friday, he hooked up Cole twice. “You have to lose seven out of 10 times in this league,” said Cole, who has given Devers six career homers. “I don’t know what it is,” but left the Friday game with back pain.

Devers’ absence on Saturday, combined with Yankees dominance and Boston’s depleted serve, made this game look like another lost cause. But the Red Sox had the upper hand, and soon Sale, their ace, would be back. In the division, the Yankees won’t catch up, but they can’t just walk away either—and they knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs last fall.

“We always feel confident against the Yankees,” Verdugo said. “It’s just one of those wild-card games last year, potentially playoff games this year, we’re going to feel confident against them. We know that when it’s a do-or-die game, something like that, we’ll bring our energy, we’ll bring our game.”

The rivalry will unfold next weekend in the Bronx.