“It’s clicking for him, and he hasn’t had any distractions to actually move him away from the program he has. That’s beautiful to see.”
Sale had one of his less exquisite outings on Saturday, allowing four runs in seven innings of a 4-3 loss to the Yankees. He still struck out nine to raise his total to 250, and his record is 14-5 with a 2.62 earned run average. But Sale was bothered by the three-run homer he gave up to Tyler Austin, which preceded a bases-empty homer by Todd Frazier.
“Got bit by the homer bug again,” said Sale, who has allowed 15 in his 25 starts. “Any time I give up two homers in a game, it’s not going to work out so much. A solo shot’s not that big of a deal, but when guys get on base, I’ve just got to be better than that.”
It was a tight game, but Girardi did not call on Chapman, who has given up runs in his last four outings. He has allowed a .313 average in that stretch, walking five and striking out five in four and one-third innings. His E.R.A. has swollen by almost a run and a half, to 4.29, a career high.
The last time Chapman gave up runs in four consecutive appearances was early in the 2011 season, when he was with the Cincinnati Reds, who placed him on the disabled list because of shoulder inflammation after the fourth game. The Yankees put him there this May with rotator cuff trouble, and Chapman missed more than a month. They insist he is fine now.
“If he’s hurt, he’s masking it well,” Girardi said. “We’ve asked him again today.”
In the clubhouse early Saturday, more than an hour after the end of a marathon 9-6 Yankees loss, Chapman said he felt strong. But he had just allowed two hits, two runs and a walk in one inning — he entered with the Yankees trailing — and had neglected to back up home plate. He acknowledged frustration.
“I’ve been in different situations when things haven’t gone my way,” Chapman, 29, said through an interpreter. “This definitely is the hardest one, but I’m pretty sure I will be back.”
Girardi said Chapman had said he was willing to do whatever he can to win, the same ethos he showed under different circumstances for the Cubs last fall. Manager Joe Maddon worked Chapman extensively, and Chapman later said he was worn out. But he did as Maddon asked, and after blowing a save in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the World Series — about as low as a closer can get — Chapman recovered to retire three dangerous Cleveland hitters in the bottom of the ninth — without his best stuff, with everything at stake.
So Chapman is tough enough to overcome this slump, and he must, given the Yankees’ investment in him. After trading Chapman to the Cubs last July, the Yankees lured him back with the richest closer’s contract in major league history: five years, $86 million, including an opt-out clause after 2019. He needs to find the precision behind his power.
“It’s command issues — missing a lot, falling behind,” Martinez, now a special assistant to the Red Sox president, said of Chapman, owner of perhaps the game’s most fearsome fastball. “When you fall behind in the big leagues, it doesn’t matter how hard you throw. As soon as you get in the strike zone, you’re going to be approached by the hitters. They’re trained to hit fastballs. But if you command it and you use it efficiently around the strike zone, you should be able to get people out with 100, if you add and subtract.”
Sale’s ability to do that — vary the speeds of his best pitches, sometimes subtly — has helped make him just what the Red Sox wanted when they traded four prospects to the White Sox to get him last December. He entered Saturday’s start leading the A.L. not only in strikeouts, but also in wins, E.R.A., innings, walks-plus-hits per inning and other important advanced metrics.
An All-Star in each of the last six seasons, Sale, 28, may be finding new ground. That is how it seemed to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who struck out three times in an April game against Sale, whose stuff looked better than ever.
“I don’t know if it was his delivery or what, but it just seemed a lot sharper than it did,” said Saltalamacchia, who was released by the Blue Jays in May and is calling this series for NESN. “I got in the box and I felt like I had no chance. Last year when I faced him, I knew he was good, but I saw the ball better and I felt like, ‘I can hit this guy.’ When I faced him this year, I don’t know how many punch-outs he had, but he had a lot.”
Sale struck out 13 Blue Jays in eight innings that outing, one of 16 appearances with at least 10 strikeouts this season. His 250 strikeouts have come in 25 starts. Only three others have reached that total in so few starts, and all are in the Hall of Fame: Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson and Martinez.
“What I like to see, more than anything, is the way he mixes,” Martinez said. “I remember him having a small, little gap between the fastball and the change; he threw the changeup a little too hard. Now he’s been able to stretch the gap between the fastball and the changeup, which is something I did really, really well — the fastball from 97 to 98, and I’d be 82 with the changeup. That was a big gap, so you have to commit to one pitch. When you have command of a breaking ball — and that big a margin between the changeup and the fastball — it forces the hitter to commit to one pitch.”
The Yankees solved Sale on Saturday, but few others have done so this season — and too many have figured out Chapman. The Red Sox have used their winter prize to seize control of the A.L. East. The Yankees need more from theirs to keep pace.