HOUSTON -- Chris Sale had waited for this day for a long time. Twenty-three years, give or take a few, by his best estimation. And so, when it was over and there was nothing left to do but process the disappointment, the Boston Red Sox ace found it easy to sum it all up.
"Bad time to suck," Sale said.
The worst, actually. If the Red Sox are going to beat the favored Houston Astros in the best-of-five American League Division Series, they probably need at least one victory from Sale, the perennial Cy Young Award candidate for whom they traded a big chunk of their farm system last December.
But instead, in the first postseason start of his stellar career, Sale looked more too much like playoff punching bag David Price for Red Sox fans' liking Thursday. He gave up seven runs on nine hits, including three home runs, and exited without recording an out in the sixth inning of a game Boston went on to lose 8-2.
"This one's on me," Sale said. "Just got to be better. No excuses."
Sale's postseason debut was historically bad. He became the second pitcher ever to allow at least three homers and seven earned runs in his first playoff start, joining Cincinnati's Gene Thompson in the 1939 World Series. Roger Clemens finally has company in the club of Red Sox pitchers who allowed at least seven runs in their postseason debut.
It would make sense to chalk up Sale's issues to October nerves if it wasn't a continuation of his late-season fade. Over the past month, he alternated good starts with bad ones, giving up 13 homers in his last 11 starts after allowing only 11 homers in his first 21. The Red Sox rode him hard, too, lining him up to face the New York Yankees three times in a four-week span.
By clinching the AL East title last Saturday, the Sox were able to give Sale extra rest and keep him from facing the Astros in the final game of the season, factors they believed would set him up to pitch well in Game 1. Instead, the Astros hit almost everything he threw. Of their six extra-base hits against Sale, four came on fastballs, two on sliders.
Sale also seemed to have difficulty putting hitters away. Four of the extra-base hits came with two strikes, a career high and a stark contrast from the regular season, when he gave up more than one two-strike extra-base hit in only one start.
When Sale mislocated pitches, it was often in the middle of the plate, and the best offense in the league teed off. Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve hit back-to-back homers in the first inning; Marwin Gonzalez ripped a two-run double in the fourth; Altuve went deep again in the fifth; Evan Gattis led off the sixth with his second double of the game.
"At times he would get a little flat, where he wasn't as downhill with probably all three pitches at times," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "But then he would throw a good number of pitches where it was typical of what the way Chris would deliver the pitch.
"I don't know that you're going to pinpoint any one reason. There's probably a combination of factors."
Astros right fielder Josh Reddick, a left-handed hitter with three hits and four strikeouts in 14 career regular-season at-bats against Sale, notched two hits and drew a walk. Reddick noticed a few changes in Sale's pattern, perhaps a result of diminished confidence in the quality of his stuff.
"Hadn't been really pitched [inside] by him a whole lot in my career, so that was something I was shocked by," Reddick said. "But fortunately I didn't chase a whole lot in and just tried to get some pitches in a spot. I had a feeling I was going to get a slider or two every at-bat. As long as I got it and didn't miss it, I was going to be OK."
Said Astros catcher Brian McCann: "Our plate discipline was great. We hit his mistakes, and that's what you have to do about guys like him."
Before the game, Farrell wouldn't rule out the possibility of bringing Sale back on three days' rest to start Game 4. It will be up to Game 2 and 3 starters Drew Pomeranz and Doug Fister to help Boston get there. But when Sale was presented with the idea earlier in the week, he said, "Three days' rest? I'm in. This is what I live for. I'm throwing until my arm falls off."
Now, the Red Sox have to wonder if he's really their best choice.