ANAHEIM, Calif. — It was a fastball, 96 mph on the outer half of the plate, and Kole Calhoun didn’t swing at it as much as he reached and flailed.
Once again, Chris Sale‘s last pitch of a game was as nasty as his first.
Sale struck out Calhoun to complete a sixth scoreless inning Friday night in the Boston Red Sox’s 6-2 victory over the Los Angeles Angels. It marked Sale’s 200th strikeout of the season in his 20th start, putting the ace lefty in a class with Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez — Hall of Famers all — as the only pitchers to fan that many hitters in 20 or fewer starts.
But Sale’s dominance is even more historic. He has reached 200 strikeouts in only 141⅓ innings, fewer than any American League pitcher in a season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Johnson did it in 143 innings in 1995, and Martinez got to 200 in 147 innings in 1999.
“I’ve not been around a pitcher that’s had those kind of totals,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell, who played with Greg Swindell, Mark Langston and Chuck Finley, and coached Josh Beckett and Jon Lester. “The strikeout capability is certainly unique. He’s an elite pitcher.”
So much so, in fact, that the Red Sox gave Sale an extra day of rest before his start against the Angels. Mindful of the fact that Sale leads the league in innings pitched — many of which have come in low-scoring, high-stress games — and has averaged 109.8 pitches per start, Farrell is taking measures to ensure the AL’s best pitcher has enough left in his tank for the stretch run.
For a change, the Red Sox also staked Sale to a big lead. They scored five runs in the top of the first inning, a welcome departure from most of his starts. Last Saturday, for instance, he tossed 7⅔ scoreless innings against the New York Yankees and left with only a 1-0 edge.
And Sale was able to exhale even more when center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. made another of his signature highlight-reel catches, a running, leaping grab into the wall to rob Angels leadoff man Yunel Escobar of extra bases in the bottom of the first inning.
“I literally looked at [third baseman] Brock [Holt] and I was like, what’s wrong with that guy?” Sale said. “It seems like he makes a great catch and it’s like, all right, that’s the best one. Then he makes another catch and it’s like, OK, that’s the best one. It seems like he’s always raising the bar.”
The same can be said of Sale, who has won 11 of his past 12 decisions, struck out at least 10 batters in 14 of his 20 starts and completed at least seven innings 15 times.
But Sale prefers to leave the historical context to others. Out of respect for Ryan, Johnson and Martinez, he said it was “cool” to share an accomplishment with them and acknowledged he will someday share it with his grandchildren. But he bristled when asked if he considers this season to be the best of a seven-year run in which he has been among the majors’ top starters.
“I’m not here to talk about that kind of crap, man,” Sale said. “We have a long way to go — a long way to go. A lot of work to do. Looking forward to the rest of the season and just working hard.”
Sale is in agreement with Farrell’s plan to give him extra rest whenever possible — “I don’t think anybody wouldn’t be, especially this time of year when we’re kind of getting into the grind of this,” he said — and as long as the Red Sox maintain their lead in the division, they will look to pick their spots to keep their ace fresh.
“Certainly after the workload of the last week, that was pretty much called for,” Farrell said. “The way he felt coming out of the Yankee game, body-wise, he felt a little more taxed than previous starts, so I thought it was timely.”
Meantime, Sale just keeps piling up the Ks — and the zeroes. He hasn’t given up a run in 13⅔ innings since the All-Star break and has blanked the opponent in three of his past four starts overall.
Sale has been so good that he has left teammates nearly speechless. Told that Sale already has 200 strikeouts before the start of August, Bradley said only, “Wow,” before adding, “That’s a lot of me not making any plays.”
Said Farrell: “It’s not just with one pitch. It’s with three different ones he can get strikeouts with. To see how consistent he’s been with strikeout totals is unique and certainly impressive.”