A loss would have meant the Boston Red Sox would be 18-18 -- and .500 after 36 games looks like a lot worse than after only 10.
Sale went out and did what aces are supposed to do.
"Every adjective we've given so far -- a lot of swing and miss, competitive, quick pace, deep into games," Boston manager John Farrell said after Sale went seven strong innings and Mookie Betts hit a two-run homer and RBI double in a 6-3 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in the middle game of a three-game series.
"It's a blueprint of the other six starts, just a quality start," Farrell said.
This was actually Sale's eighth Red Sox start. And, after coming in having given up two home runs this season, he gave up two more -- but the shots by Logan Morrison and Kevin Kiermaier were the only hits the Rays got off him.
Sale struck out 12, while Joe Kelly and Craig Kimbrel worked an inning apiece, with two strikeouts apiece.
"Obviously today we saw a lot of power. They're 97-100 miles an hour," said Rays manager Kevin Cash. "The first six or seven innings they've got the best lefty in the American League throwing."
Sale (4-2 with a 2.15 ERA and wins his last three times out) struck out seven of the first 10 hitters, the fourth straight time he has fanned six of the first nine. The solo homer he allowed to Morrison marked the first extra-base hit by a left-handed hitter off Sale in 21 at-bats this season.
It was only the ninth homer Sale has ever given up to a left-handed batter, and then Kiermaier made it 10. The two-run homer came on a 0-and-2 pitch after hitters were only 2-for-30 with 21 strikeouts when down 0-and-2 to Sale.
"I was hot. I was (steamed) after that," said Sale. "Giving up home runs to lefties is something that'll get me going. Not only that, I gave up the lead."
And that was all, as his team came back after both home runs gave the visitors the lead.
"He's got the ability to just kind of kick it in different gears," Cash said. "It looked like the first couple innings he was just kind of almost still warming up. He wasn't letting fastballs go, he pitched off his changeup, kind of pitched backwards. When you've got a guy that's left-handed, throws from that slot, with the power fastball and then the ability to throw a really good diving changeup and a sweeping slider, you're going to have your hands full."
Sale reached double figures in strikeouts for the seventh straight time and leads the major leagues with 85 this season -- tying Randy Johnson for the most whiffs for a new team through eight starts. Sale is one shy of tying the major league record for most consecutive games with 10-plus strikeouts that he shares with Pedro Martinez.
Betts hit his fourth homer in six games and then doubled home another run while Deven Marrero, Boston's latest third baseman, doubled home two runs off Blake Snell (0-4).
"It's tough when you can't really put it in play," Betts said of the opposition facing Sale. "Errors can happen, that type of thing. He's just punching everybody out. There's not a whole lot that you can hope to happen.
"On the defensive side it's fun standing there and running back in."
Marrero, getting his second start at third base, is the fifth player to start a game there for the Red Sox -- the other four with 13 combined errors.
"He went out and made plays," Farrell said. "Timely two-run base hit -- just to see the game clean was a really good step."
Evan Longoria of the Rays went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and is 2-for-27 with 11 strikeouts in his career against Sale.
Morrison's homer was his first off a left-hander since last May 25 and he reached double figures in home runs in 36 games, faster than any Tampa Bay player since 2009.
NOTES: Boston SS Xander Bogaerts drove in a run but his 15-game hitting streak was stopped. ... The game was played at 1 p.m., moved up from 7 to beat an approaching storm. ... Both teams wore pink-brimmed caps and assorted other pink in honor of Mother's Day weekend. ... RF Steven Souza Jr. returned to the Tampa Bay lineup after missing four games because of a thumb injury. ... INF/OF Brock Holt of the Red Sox, on the disabled list because of vertigo, is slated to play nine innings for triple-A Pawtucket on Sunday, while 3B Pablo Sandoval, on the DL because of a knee injury, will accompany the team on the upcoming trip before a rehab assignment. ... The Rays send RHP Matt Andriese out against LHP Drew Pomeranz in the series finale Sunday, with the weather a potential problem. ... The players in the 3-6 spots in the Boston lineup went a combined 0-for-15 with one walk.