MLB World Series 2018: Chris Sale is still lacking the dominant fastball, so he leaned on his slider in Game 1

BOSTON — It is a testament to the depth and overall excellence of the Boston Red Sox that they are three wins away from a World Series championship despite getting relatively little from staff ace Chris Sale this postseason.

During Boston’s 8-4 Game 1 win over the Dodgers on Tuesday, Sale needed 91 pitches to get 12 outs and failed to complete five innings for the second straight start. It was the first time in 211 career starts (regular season and postseason) that Sale threw over 90 pitches while completing no more than four innings.

Seven strikeouts in four innings (plus one batter) is quite good, undoubtedly, but the Dodgers had little trouble extending at-bats and elevating Sale’s pitch count in Game 1. His pitch counts in his four full innings: 21, 30, 21, 14. Sale faced 19 batters and 12 saw at least five pitches. The team with the lowest chase rate in baseball during the regular season didn’t chase out of the zone.

The radar gun has been at the center of attention with Sale since he returned in September from his second stint on the disabled list with shoulder inflammation, and his fastball velocity was still down from its norm in Game 1. His heater averaged 96.1 mph prior to his final stint on the disabled list. Here’s his four-seam fastball by inning Tuesday night:

  • 1st inning: 94.2 mph
  • 2nd inning: 94.2 mph
  • 3rd inning: 93.4 mph
  • 4th inning: 91.8 mph
  • 5th inning: None thrown

A clear fade for Sale, who’s been pitching with a compromised fastball for a few weeks, and has compensated by upping his slider usage. He’s got a great slider and he used it often in Game 1. More times than his fastball, in fact. Sale threw 33 sliders and 30 four-seam fastballs Tuesday night, and he had a clear pattern. Elevated fastballs up and sliders down.

Dodgers hitters swung at 11 of Sale’s fastballs and missed twice. They swung at 20 of his sliders and missed nine times. Seven of the 13 sliders they didn’t swing at went for a called strike. When Sale needed to make a pitch, either to finish an at-bat or get back in the count, he turned to the slider. The fastball has been reduced to a show-me pitch.

Through four postseason games (three starts, one relief appearance), Sale has thrown 129 sliders and 130 fastballs. He’s had a 50-50 split, basically. Before the shoulder injuries Sale had closer to a 60-40 split in favor of fastballs, and while it doesn’t seem like a significant difference, it is when you’re packing 90-something pitches into four innings.

More so than at any other point in his career, Sale is in survival mode right now, trying to get outs with a fastball that is clearly not good enough to dominate. Having a wipeout slider helps — Sale’s been able to maintain the velocity separation between his fastball and slider, which is crucial — and that wipeout slider has allowed Sale to be something more than terrible this October.

The Red Sox have gotten this far in the postseason without a dominant Chris Sale and it is entirely possible he won’t pitch again this year. Boston could wrap up the World Series before his rotation spot comes up again. Being in position to do that with Sale pitching the way he has is pretty remarkable, really.

Point is, Sale’s found a way to make it work with something that is clearly far below his best stuff. Neither Sale nor the Red Sox are using the regular shoulder trouble as an excuse, but it has clearly taken something away, and he’s had to figure out a way to get outs. Sale’s reinvented himself on the fly in the postseason and using the slider over the fastball has been the adjustment.

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