This is the second chance Chris Sale desperately desired last October, when the Astros ambushed him for seven runs in his postseason debut. Though he'd pick up a measure of redemption with a solid relief outing later in that American League Division Series, the score is nowhere close to settled in the mind of the Red Sox ace.
"This is a rematch of last year," Sale said Friday, on the eve of his Game 1 start in the AL Championship Series. "Obviously the winner of this one goes to the World Series. So like I've been saying the whole time, just keep playing the same game, not trying to reach for more, not trying to be better than I am. We shouldn't play as a team like that, either."
Sale is enjoying a better postseason this time around. He spun 5 1/3 innings of two-run ball to pick up a win over the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS, then was summoned from the bullpen in Game 4 as Boston manager Alex Cora went for the jugular, ending the Yanks' season when Sale pitched a scoreless, 13-pitch eighth and Craig Kimbrel worked out of trouble in the ninth.
And as the Red Sox celebrated their advance earlier this week, spraying bubbly to the strains of Frank Sinatra's "Theme from New York, New York," Sale called his disastrous postseason debut "a very humbling experience" and said that it continues to help him.
"It's one of those things that you learn more from your mistakes than you do sometimes your successes," Sale said. "You try to flip the script and be better from it, and try to keep the momentum rolling forward.
Cora said that instead of taking the poor start as a negative, the left-hander seems to be using it as fuel.
"I know he was very excited to get the ball for the first game in the Division Series against New York," Cora said. "He was more than excited to come in relief. He told me three days in a row, 'Hey, I'm coming in. I'm coming in.' And now he's excited to have a second chance against the Astros."
With Sale matched against Justin Verlander in last year's ALDS Game 1, the trouble started quickly. The crowd at Minute Maid Park went wild when Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve hit back-to-back homers in the first inning, but the Red Sox scratched a pair of runs to tie the game in the fourth.
"I heard in that game, he went to the bullpen and it took him 10 or 12 pitches to be ready because he was so hyped up," said Cora, then Houston's bench coach. "His stuff was good that day. As far as location, he was off. He had Altuve 0-2 in that first at-bat and he threw a fastball down the middle. Bregman hit a home run on a slider, and everything happened fast for him."
Sale coughed the lead up on Marwin Gonzalez's two-run double. In the fifth, Altuve hit his second homer of the game, and Brian McCann knocked a two-run single off Joe Kelly in the sixth -- runs that were charged to Sale's ledger.
"They've got guys who can put the ball in the seats at any time," Sale said. "You just try to break that down, try not to give up that big inning or big hit."
Their backs to the wall, the Red Sox called upon Sale on three days' rest in ALDS Game 4, hurling 4 2/3 innings in relief of Rick Porcello. Sale allowed two runs, including an eighth-inning Bregman homer, as Boston's season was cut short by the eventual World Series champions.
"I think he used that as a learning experience," Cora said. "It's not like he wants to beat the Astros more than the Yankees or the Royals. With Chris, he'll compete at a high level even throwing a bullpen. So he's in a good place, he's ready to go. And I'm glad that he's going to throw Game 1 for us."
Bryan Hoch MLB.com