BOSTON – The obvious realization came in the first few at-bats of the game: This wasn’t going to be one of those days where Chris Sale gets beat. It was going to be a long, difficult day for Seattle hitters.
The Mariners’ only hope for victory would be to match Sale’s dominance and somehow pull out a victory at the end against the Red Sox bullpen.
But neither happened Sunday in a 5-0 loss to the Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Sale dominated for seven scoreless innings while Boston built a sizable lead against Mariners starter Marco Gonzales.
“I think (that) was one of his best,” said Nelson Cruz, who had 28 career plate appearances against the lanky lefty coming into the game. “He’s really tough when he’s not at his best. Can you imagine what it was looking like today? He’s definitely one of the best in the league and he showed it today.”
As Sale painted the edges of the plate with his high-90s fastballs and dropped in nasty, almost unfair sliders, the only questions that remained were: 1. Would the Mariners score against him? 2. How many Seattle hitters would he strike out?
“It feels like he’s right on top of you,” Cruz said. “He’s got the long arms and long legs.”
It was a comfortable enough margin that the Red Sox didn’t have to push Sale into the eighth. He’d thrown 93 pitches, allowed just four hits, struck out 13 batters and walked one to improve to 7-4 on the season. Sale has allowed two runs or fewer in each of his past four starts, posting a 1.29 ERA. In nine career starts vs. Seattle, Sale is 6-1 with 1.95 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 69 1/3 innings.
Only one Mariners hitter made it past second base. It came on Cruz’s triple over the head of right fielder Mookie Betts in the third inning.
Over the first five innings, Sale struck out 10 batters and allowed six balls to be put into play. From the third through the fifth inning, he struck out eight of the 10 batters he faced.
“You are hoping for him to make a mistake,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “But you aren’t going to get many chances. You are hoping to string a couple hits together and somebody pops one out of the ballpark.”
The few times the Mariners got runners on base against Sale, he seemed to get stronger. Seattle’s best chance at a run came in the sixth. With Dee Gordon on first base, Mitch Haniger sent a hard line drive to right field. But Betts made a twisting catch at the wall to end the inning.
Sale’s 93rd pitch of the game was a riding 100.5 mph fastball that Mike Zunino had no chance of hitting. He waved at the nasty pitch, striking out for the third time in the game.
For four innings, Gonzales was matching Sale’s dominance. A fellow lefty that doesn’t have any of the velocity or violent stuff of Sale, Gonzales was pinpoint in his command and attack against the full complement of Boston’s lineup.
“He’s a great pitcher,” Gonzales said of Sale. “I knew that I needed some good stuff today. I knew I had to keep it a close game. I tried my best to do that.”
Gonzales allowed just one hit over four scoreless innings, while striking out six batters.
But his outing fell apart in the fifth. He allowed a leadoff double to Xander Bogaerts, a single to Eduardo Nunez and another double to Rafael Devers, which plated the first Boston run. The Red Sox added a pair of sacrifices flies in the inning to make it 3-0.
“Marco was throwing the ball great,” Servais said. “They put some good at-bats against him in the fifth. They made some adjustments.”
But Gonzales hinted at something a little more nefarious than good at-bats or changed approaches.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “I was making pitches and competing, but some of their swings looked a little too good on some of those pitches. I guess that’s how the game is.”
Did he think he was tipping pitches or was he referring to sign stealing by the Red Sox, which they were caught doing last season?
“I’m not going to make accusations or anything,” he said. “But we’ve seen it from these guys time and time again. But, yeah, I thought up and down the lineup after the fifth inning, I thought it looked a lot different out there.”
A 1-0 deficit vs. Sale is workable. A 2-0 deficit makes you hope to get him out an inning early and then beat the bullpen. Anything more than that, a comeback becomes borderline impossible.
And the Red Sox lead continued to grow against Gonzales. Mitch Moreland smashed a two-run homer to center to push the lead to 5-0 in the sixth. Gonzales finished the frame, but his outing was done. After the first four scoreless innings, he’d allowed five runs in the final two. He gave up a total of seven hits with five strikeouts.
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