MIAMI — Chris Sale reared back — all arms and legs and inimitably sharp angles — turned the baseball loose and blew away mountainous Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton with 98 miles an hour of four-seam fastball trailing off the plate.
Strike three. And a beautiful thing.
It was a big matchup befitting an All-Star Game that has been returned to its roots — to individual moments like Sale-vs.-Stanton that aren’t about which team wins the game, but about the seductive spectacle.
Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic at Marlins Park was the first since 2002 whose outcome wouldn’t determine home-field advantage in the World Series. That strange tradition — which had been in place since the infamous All-Star tie of ’02 — is over.
Sale’s time as a left-handed star of the American League East-leading Red Sox is only beginning. There was something about seeing the ex-White Sox ace in a new context — as an All-Star Game starter representing a legit World Series contender — that begged the question:
How could the White Sox ever have let him get away?
Maybe it was the wrong time for the rebuilding Sox to empty their pot of gold to keep Sale. Of course, we mustn’t forget the significant fact that Sale, who has yet to pitch in the postseason, wanted to play for a winner.
Still: Did Sale — an All-Star for the sixth year in a row, the first five of those with the White Sox — ever look like a bigger deal than he did Tuesday night while throwing two scoreless innings clad in Boston duds?
“It felt a little different,” he said. “I’m pretty excited to be wearing this uniform.”
Sale — a year after winning 14 games in the first half for the South Siders — is 11-4 with a 2.75 ERA for the Red Sox, the leaders of the AL East. He has 178 strikeouts, the most in the majors. He is now the first American Leaguer to start consecutive All-Star games since Toronto’s Dave Stieb did it in 1983 and ’84, and he’s one of only two pitchers, the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw being the other, who’s been named to an All-Star team for the last six seasons.
You might say he’s a really big deal.
Red Sox teammate Mookie Betts called Sale a “machine.” Indians outfielder Michael Brantley called him a “game changer.” The All-Stars assembled here were as impressed with Sale as they were with any superstar — well, not counting Yankees legend-in-the-making Aaron Judge.
Speaking of spectacles — a night after winning the Home Run Derby, Judge, who leads baseball with 30 homers this season, went 0-for-3 off the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, the Cardinals’ Carlos Martinez and the Dodgers’ Alex Wood. Those memories won’t last us a lifetime.
Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper’s hair flip after a diving catch might not, either. Same for the solo home run by proud, veteran Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina. Yet, as the 88th All-Star Game moved into the late innings, no one was looking on with fret about which team would win. Everyone was just waiting for that one look-what-just-happened moment.
It sure is pleasing to reflect back on some of those. Reggie Jackson’s 532-foot home run in 1971. Fred Lynn’s grand slam in ’83. Bo Jackson’s leadoff shot in ’89. Cal Ripken Jr.’s homer in ’01, in his 19th and final one of these games.
It looked like the White Sox’ lone representative this time, Avisail Garcia, might’ve gotten ahold of one himself in the seventh inning of a 1-1 game. Alas, it went for a screaming out to left field.
“I told him, ‘It’s about time,’ ” Sale said of his pregame conversation with his former teammate, a first-time All-Star.
It would be nice to think Garcia will have more chances in the years to come to make a spectacle of himself.
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.