After Chris Sale dazzles in Red Sox debut, Sandy Leon beats Pirates with walkoff homer in 12th

April 6, 2017

Chris Sale’s first career start for the Red Sox was a gem.

The Red Sox clearly have their ace, the pitcher they can count on in 40-degree weather early in the season against a National League team, when runs are particularly hard to come by. His new club needed every one of Sale’s seven scoreless innings and then some, finally scoring in the 12th when Sandy Leon launched a three-run homer over the Green Monster for a 3-0 win against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I felt good, I felt confident,” Sale said. “I felt like I was able to throw all my pitches for strikes. Not only that but ahead in the count, behind in the count, offspeed stuff. Credit goes to Sandy though. (The catcher) was the one calling the pitches, I was just the one throwing them. When you can have confidence in the guy behind the plate like that, it’s huge.

“Just watching him hit that home run, that was fun.”

The Red Sox have played 21 innings this season but scored in just two of those frames.

Leon’s homer helped him forget about his crucial mistake in the third inning, when he was thrown out at the plate with two outs on a single to right field by Dustin Pedroia. Third base coach Brian Butterfield put on the stop sign, but Leon had already crossed the bag.

“I didn’t see Butter,” Leon said. “I just kept running. It was my fault.”

It was also his fault the Red Sox won. The switch-hitter took a pretty swing from the right side on a 92-mph fastball left over the heart of the plate by lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo.

“I’m not a home run hitter, so I was just trying to get a good pitch to hit,” Leon said. “I was just trying to keep it simple and get a base hit so Jackie (Bradley Jr.) could score (from third). The pitch was right in the middle so I put a good swing on it and it was a homer.”

Playing without No.?3 hitter Mookie Betts and utility man Brock Holt, who were out with flu-like symptoms, the Red Sox badly needed the big hit from Leon (3-for-5). As a team, the Sox went 8-for-39, including a disastrous trifecta of at-bats in the fifth inning, when they put runners on the corners with nobody and came up empty.

The Pirates did even less, ending the game without ever putting a runner on second base. Sale had a lot to do with that.

With a remarkable presence on the Fenway Park mound, Sale started off his Red Sox career with a 96-mph fastball for a called strike. He struck out the second batter, Starling Marte, on a sharp slider, his signature pitch. In the second inning, he struck out two — Francisco Cervelli on an 86-mph changeup and Josh Harrison on an eye-level 96-mph fastball.

“He was nasty,” Leon said. “It’s really fun to catch him.”

The Pirates scraped together just three singles against Sale and struck out seven times, including five on the slider.

“First pitch of spring training was 97 (mph),” manager John Farrell said. “He really settles in comfortably at that 92, 93 range where he’s got such great separation between all three pitches and that sweeping slider that he can keep away from right-handers, he can go back foot to them as well.

“He was in command tonight.”

On his 104th and final pitch, Sale induced a flyout and the crowd sent him into the dugout to a loud ovation.

“That’s another feeling I’ll never forget,” Sale said. “That’s special. That’s awesome. And I appreciate it.”

Matt Barnes came on for the eighth in relief of Sale, then Farrell went to Craig Kimbrel, Heath Hembree, Robby Scott and Joe Kelly over the final four innings.

“Obviously I didn’t sign up for 12 but it was nice to get the win,” Sale said. “All the better having your catcher go out there and walk it off. That’s special.”