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This is what Chris Sale has been building up for

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A pivotal game where he’ll need his best stuff.

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Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Four Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Red Sox, and perhaps more specifically their fans, are in a big of a strange position. On the one hand, they were never supposed to be here and that they are even in this spot at all is incredible and allows them to play with house money, so to speak. On the other hand, the two Red Sox wins in this series were runaways and they had a good chance to win the other two as well, meaning it’s hard to not be at least a little disappointed that they find themselves tied with Houston, even if most felt they were going to lose this series anyway. But it is what it is and we can only move forward with where we are now.

And where we are now is entering what is always the most pivotal game of a seven-game series: Game Five. Necessarily, either a team has a chance to win the series in Game Five or it is the game to break a 2-2 tie. The Red Sox and Astros are obviously in the latter situation with a rematch of the Game One pitching matchup on the tap. Framber Valdez and Chris Sale each take the ball after short outings in their first appearance of the series.

Because of the success they had in the first game, it would seem that the offenses should be the focus of this game. After all, not only did both sets of lineups get to the respective starters — for Houston, it was more with baserunners than actual runs, to be fair — but just generally these are teams that are built around their offenses. We haven’t yet seen a game where both lineups impose their will yet, however, and it feels like at least one of them is going to in this one. For the Red Sox to avoid Houston being that team, they need Chris Sale to be something much closer to Chris Sale than we’ve seen in his more recent outings.

I find it a little bit difficult to find the right tone to strike when talking about the Red Sox ace, because we are sort of working in two different dimensions. It is entirely true and fair to point out that he is coming back from the long rehab road that is post-Tommy John life, and we know that pitchers often struggle right away coming back. It is also entirely true and fair to point out that these innings he’s throwing are extremely important, and while it’s understandable that he’s not looking like anything even resembling an ace, it’s hurting the team. Sale has been building his way back all year really, but in game action since the summer, and he’s been building up for a start like this when the team needs him more than ever.

When we talk about pitchers struggling coming back from Tommy John and the order at which things “come back,” you will without fail hear that command is last in line. And watching Sale, it’s hard to argue. His stuff hasn’t been totally consistent, but we’ve at least seen flashes to know that he still has it in him for the most part. But the command just isn’t there, and in particular his fastball is not getting where he wants it to be. Ideally he is working the top of the zone with his heat to set up his slider and changeup. But especially looking at his Game One start, he’s just leaving too many pitches in the middle of the zone or missing by enough that he’s not going to induce a swing.

Getting that fastball location back to a more manageable place would certainly go a long way to alleviate his struggles of late, but you will also notice a distinct and relative lack of green on that image as well. We heard a lot heading into his last start about how Sale has not had a feel for his changeup but had felt like he was making strides before the appearance. It doesn’t seem as though that has worked out. He threw only four changeups on the day, a seven percent rate compared to a 19 percent rate on the season.

Sale doesn’t need his changeup to be a primary weapon, especially against an Astros team that has done damage against changeups all year. Per FanGraphs’ pitch value metric, only Atlanta hit the pitch better on a rate basis than Houston. But we also are smart enough to know that no pitches are thrown in a vacuum, and that even if the Astros hit changeups well Sale still needs that third pitch off of which he can work the other ones. Because while he has flashed promising stuff for both his fastball and slider, the consistency isn’t there yet in addition to the command needing to get up to par. Prime Chris Sale could work with two pitches and have no problem at all. But that guy is not the one pitching right now, and he really needs that third pitch to make everything work.

As we said, it’s a long road back from Tommy John and whatever happens in this start isn’t going to do a whole lot to alter how I feel about him looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, which is relatively optimistic. But we’re also in Game Five of the ALCS, and we have to talk about the short-term as well. We haven’t seen the Chris Sale that this team has needed, but he’s been building his way back and trying to take steps in the right direction. This is the exact moment he’s been building for, and I think we’ll no pretty early on, from his confidence (or lack thereof) in his changeup as well as his fastball command, if he’s righted the ship right in the nick of time. If he has, the Red Sox should be able to take control of this series right back from Houston.