BALTIMORE — Aside from his limited pitch count, Chris Sale appeared to be his usual dominant self on Sunday afternoon.
The Red Sox left-hander carved his way through the Orioles lineup over the first five innings, brilliance that laid the foundation to finish off a four-game whitewashing of the American League East basement dwellers.
Steve Pearce’s solo home run, some alert base running by Brock Holt and key hits in the top of the ninth inning by Jackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts were all the support Sale required in a 4-1 victory, as his first start since July 27 proved to be a winning one.
Sale was placed on the disabled list with left shoulder inflammation ahead of a four-game series with the Yankees last weekend, one Boston wound up sweeping without the services of its ace. It was Baltimore instead who served as Sale’s next victim, mustering just a Renato Nunez single leading off the third. Sale struck out 12 and forced 14 swings and misses on a mere 68 pitches, running his fastball up to 99 mph and showcasing both a snapping slider and dipping changeup.
“It’s my job,” Sale said. “I’m not a big fan of sitting on the sidelines. It was good to get back out there and pitch again.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Saturday that Sale would be kept around 85 or 90 pitches. The actual number was 75, with Cora playing coy to prevent Baltimore from changing its collective approach at the plate. The Orioles’ at-bats suggested they thought a third turn through the order against Sale was guaranteed, swinging at the first pitch occasionally and working from behind in the count throughout the afternoon.
“We’ve got to be disciplined with this,” Cora said. “The way he was throwing the ball, it was very tempting for us to send him one more inning. We’ve been disciplined the whole season, and we stuck with the plan.”
Sale threw his last competitive pitch more than two weeks ago against the Twins, and he enjoyed a thin cushion before unleashing the next one. Pearce jumped on a hanging curveball from Baltimore starter Alex Cobb, sending it down the line in left for a solo shot in the top of the first. It was the sixth home run for Pearce since his trade from Toronto to the Red Sox in late June, making it 1-0.
“We’ve played a lot of games, bad travel schedule, late turnarounds,” Pearce said. “For us to take care of business, that’s huge.”
Boston scratched out what proved to be the winning run after Holt lined a leadoff single to right in the fourth. J.D. Martinez followed one batter later by slapping a double down the line in right, and Adam Jones failed to field it cleanly. Holt was initially stopped by third base coach Carlos Febles, but both men were alert enough to get Holt started again down the line.
Boston ran into two real trouble spots behind Sale, the first coming in the bottom of the sixth. The Orioles loaded the bases after Tyler Thornburg retired the first two men, forcing Alex Cora to bring on Ryan Brasier. He won a nine-pitch battle with Trey Mancini by burying a slider down in the zone, recording a swinging strikeout.
“As long as I threw one around the plate I thought there was a pretty good chance of getting a swing out of it,” Brasier said. “Whether he missed it or not, I didn’t know if that was going to happen.”
The Red Sox weren’t so lucky in the eighth. Mancini was back in the box with the bases loaded and one out this time, and Matt Barnes was unable to escape unscathed. Mancini lifted a sacrifice fly to center, cutting the 2-0 Boston lead in half, but Barnes struck out Tim Beckham with a breaking ball to leave runners at the corners.
“They’ve been amazing regardless of what people think or how many runs they scored,” Cora said. “We went through two tough starts and a doubleheader. For us to get 27 outs on a nightly basis, that was impressive.”
Sale lowered his earned-run average for the season to 1.97, including a microscopic 0.20 ERA over his last seven starts. The second number represents the best posted by any Red Sox pitcher since earned runs became an official stat in 1913. Sale has struck out 79 and walked just six over his last 44 innings of work.
“The only thing I was really worried about was my command,” said Sale, who didn’t issue a walk. “My arm has felt good for a while. I felt normal for the last three or four days.”