Chris Sale shows he deserves to be part of AL Cy Young discussion

BOSTON -- They used to say "Don't pitch a lefty in Fenway Park." The Green Monster is so close and gives up so many cheap home runs to right-handed batters and so many cheap doubles off the wall that it will eventually get in your head if you're a southpaw. Whitey Ford was one of the best lefties of all time and Casey Stengel basically refused to pitch him there; Ford started 43 times against the Red Sox in his career, but just 12 times at Fenway.

The way Chris Sale pitched on Sunday, you could have put him on a Little League field in Colorado and the Mariners might not have scored off him. Sale shut down the Mariners in a 5-0 victory with 13 strikeouts over seven brisk innings, throwing 71 of 93 pitches for strikes, and fanning Mike Zunino with a 100.5 mph fastball on his final pitch -- the fastest pitch of his career. I'm not sure how the Mariners got four hits off him.

Sale is serving notice that you shouldn't forget about him in what could be an epic American League Cy Young race -- John Smoltz said a few days ago it could be the best one ever. Justin Verlander may be the leader at the moment with his 1.60 ERA, but Corey Kluber and Luis Severino actually rank 1-2 in WAR with Sale fourth entering the day behind Verlander. Throw in Trevor Bauer, Blake Snell and Gerrit Cole and you have seven starters with ERAs under 2.60 and dominant peripheral stats to match.

"He was amazing," manager Alex Cora said of Sale after the game. "Velocity-wise, location-wise, the tempo. It was a big game, you win the series, you move on. From the get-go, from the first at-bat against Dee [Gordon], you could tell. He looks fresh, he's throwing the ball well, we're very pleased with where he's at right now."

Over his past four starts, Sale has allowed four runs in 28 innings with 43 strikeouts and just 15 hits allowed, a meager .155 average. For the season, he's 7-4 with a 2.56 ERA and ranks first in the AL in strikeouts, third behind Verlander and Cole in batting average allowed and second to Kluber in innings. His average fastball velocity has ramped up from 92.5 mph in April to 95.6 in May to 97.0 in June.

That final pitch? "Got two strikes in the inning, the crowd's into it, just rear back and let it eat," Sale said.

Hovering over all of this is what happened down the stretch last season. Sale entered August as the Cy Young front-runner with a 13-4 record and 2.37 ERA. Thanks to a couple of seven-run outings against the Indians, however, plus two other games in which he allowed a combined seven home runs, his ERA over the final two months was 4.09.

"The whole plan this year has been recovery, feeling good and staying strong. I think we've had a good building-up action from spring training up to now," Sale said. He's made 17 starts and mentioned that he's probably thrown fewer innings and fewer pitches than at the same time last season.

He's right. Through 17 starts last year, he'd thrown 120 2/3 innings and thrown 1,853 pitches; this season, he's at 109 innings and 1,715 pitches. That may not seem like a big difference, only eight fewer pitches on average per start, but the uptick in velocity at this point in the season is at least anecdotal evidence that the offseason plan Sale and the front office put together with Cora and the coaching staff is working.

"I know a lot of people talk about what happened last year," said Cora, who was a bench coach for the Astros when they eliminated the Red Sox in the ALDS. "I do feel that his stuff was still there. In October, he was throwing 97-98, just a matter of a few pitches in the heart of the plate and [the Astros] took advantage of it. The stuff was there. The last game here in Game 4 he dominated."

In baseball-obsessed Boston, where the media will never forget even small failings, Sale will face questions about his durability the rest of the season. That's part of the fun of playing in Boston. It takes a certain mental strength to deal with these things. For Sale, it's simply focusing on controlling what you can control.

"The main focus right now is just winning games. We'll worry about the future when we get there," he said.

About that Cy Young. The one thing working against Sale is the win-loss record, which is mostly about a lack of run support. The Red Sox are third in the majors in runs per game with 5.11, just a hair behind the Astros and Yankees, but they've been shut out twice in Sale starts and he's had five no-decisions when he has allowed two runs or less.

"Sometimes I walk around and wonder when he's going to get upset," Cora joked.

While it's true that wins don't rule the Cy Young voting the way they once did, they could factor into a race with so many strong candidates, and with Kluber 11-3 and Severino 11-2. Sale also is on the short list of best pitchers to never win the award, riding a streak of six straight top-six finishes, including runner-up honors to Kluber last season.

But, as Sale said, that's in the future. At the present, one of the best pitchers in the game is riding a crackling fastball, an unhittable slider that batters have hit .108 against, plus an underrated changeup to one of the best months of his career.

Oh, he's also not afraid of the Green Monster. He has a 2.96 ERA at home since joining the Red Sox.