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Sale's 17-K gem was historic, but will it be remembered as one of the greats?

theScore logo theScore 5/15/2019 Jonah Birenbaum
Chris Sale in a baseball uniform throwing a ball © Kathryn Riley / Getty Images Sport / Getty

If any concerns still existed about Chris Sale, the Boston Red Sox ace squashed them in historic fashion Tuesday evening at Fenway Park.

Sale had already turned in successive May masterpieces after stumbling to a 6.30 ERA in April amid disconcerting dips in both velocity and command. But against the Colorado Rockies, he recorded a career-high 17 strikeouts over just seven innings en route to a litany of historical distinctions. Notably, Sale became ...

  • The first pitcher ever to strike out 17 batters in a start that lasted no more than seven innings
  • The first left-hander since Johan Santana in 2007 - and just the 11th all time - to record 17 or more strikeouts in a start
  • The second pitcher in Red Sox history to notch 10 or more strikeouts without walking a batter in successive starts. (The other is Cy Young.)

It was, to put it succinctly, one hell of a performance. Showcasing his ruthless efficiency, Sale fanned eight of the first nine hitters he faced, and only seven of the 24 batters who came to the plate didn't walk sheepishly back to the dugout moments later. Overall, the ace induced 23 whiffs in 108 pitches while throwing 69 percent of those pitches for strikes. The Rockies were hopelessly overmatched for virtually the entire evening.

In the top of the seventh inning, however, Sale gave Colorado "a breath of fresh air," as he put it, when he allowed a leadoff single to Trevor Story and then a two-run home run by Nolan Arenado. He proceeded to strike out the side, preserving his club's 3-2 lead.

The blast proved pivotal, though, as Sale didn't come out for the eighth inning (even though he wanted to, of course), and Boston's bullpen promptly blew it. Ultimately, the Rockies escaped with a 5-4 victory in 11 innings despite compiling 24 strikeouts in all.

Amid all those mitigating factors, will Sale's start go down in the canon of all-time, remember-where-you-were pitching performances? It's difficult to say.

Consider, after all, some of the more commonly cited masterpieces from recent history that weren't no-hitters or perfect games, such as Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout gem from 1998; Brandon Morrow's 17-strikeout near no-no in 2010; Roger Clemens' herculean 151-pitch, 20-strikeout effort in 1996; Max Scherzer's 16-strikeout shutout in 2015; and David Cone's sterling 19-strikeout game in 1991. What do they all have in common? Well, in each of those instances, the pitcher threw a complete game and their team won.

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Sale's start doesn't satisfy either criterion. And the collective sports consciousness has little space for even the most remarkable individual performance if it didn't ultimately lead to victory.

To be sure, Sale's dominance on Tuesday was remarkable. It simply can't be overstated how ludicrous it is that he racked up 17 strikeouts in seven innings. Yet, his relatively brief outing (relative, that is, to the other dudes who racked up at least as many strikeouts in a start), along with the two-run homer he served up, still rendered his outing the seventh worst, by Game Score, of the 42 starts since 1908 in which a pitcher whiffed at least 17 batters.

By Game Score, Sale's outing wasn't even his best start in the past week. Last Wednesday, he owned the moribund Orioles in Baltimore, fanning 14 while allowing just one run on three hits (and two hit batsmen) over eight innings. For his efforts, Sale earned a Game Score of 86, six points higher than Tuesday's grade, yet still only the eighth-best start of 2019 so far.

Additionally, while both the volume of punchouts and Sale's efficiency stand out in the wake of his start against Colorado, never before has a 17-strikeout performance seemed so liable to be forgotten.

This is the age of strikeouts, after all - the league-wide rate has been steadily increasing for the last decade, and the current mark - 23.2 percent - represents an all-time record. In 2018, MLB pitchers combined for 246 double-digit strikeout performances; in 2005, there were just 99. And Sale himself holds the career record for strikeout percentage among pitchers with at least 1,000 innings (30.2 percent). Overall, there's becoming an oversaturation of ostensibly memorable pitching performances:

Again, that isn't to say Sale's start against Colorado wasn't historic. It was. Unquestionably.

But it still may not go down as an all-time memorable masterpiece outside of New England.

Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.

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