NEW YORK -- As the Boston Red Sox clubhouse emptied out after another loss, maintaining Boston's status at the bottom of the American League East standings, the Star Wars "Imperial March" blared off a phone speaker in the hallway. Like it has so many times in Red Sox history, a loss at Yankee Stadium at the hands of the rival Evil Empire served as wakeup call Tuesday night. Darth Vader's theme merely served as a nail in the coffin in a blowout 8-0 loss, one that saw Boston confront its most pressing issues.
Chris Sale looked better Tuesday night, throwing his best stuff of the season, according to manager Alex Cora. In the first inning, Sale regularly pumped fastballs touching up to 97 mph, a massive velocity increase over the 91.6 mph he came in averaging over his first three starts of this season.
None of that mattered, though, when the final out was recorded. Sale was finished for the evening after throwing five innings, allowing seven hits, four runs, one walk and one homer while tallying six strikeouts. Cora remained optimistic that his ace will find success soon, alluding to the lefty's meager total of nine innings in spring training. Everyone from Cora to the guy at the end of the bar knows that the ace, who signed a five-year, $145 million extension in the offseason, needs to be better for the Red Sox (6-12) to fulfill their potential.
"I don't want to say that he's a work in progress, because we're not here to build up or whatever," Cora said. "I wouldn't be surprised if he's where we need him to be in his next outing."
Boston needs its ace to set the tone for a rotation that's allowed a major league-leading 114 runs with an ERA of 6.09. When asked if he shares Cora's optimism about his next start, Sale responded simply, underscoring the growing urgency in Boston's early-season games.
"You'd better f---ing hope so," Sale said.
Sale's lackluster performance only sharpened the focus on the team's other major dilemma. After finishing 2018 with the majors' best batting average with runners in scoring position (.289), the Red Sox currently find themselves in the middle of the pack, ranking 16th with a .258 batting average. The Red Sox currently rank 16th in baseball in runs scored after finishing 2018 with the league's highest-scoring offense. Boston's minus-40 run differential is the worst in the American League, just three runs better than the league-worst Miami Marlins.
While Yankees lefty James Paxton rolled through the Red Sox lineup, routinely pumping out high-90s fastballs and devastating cutters, Boston nevertheless generated a none-out, second-and-third situation in the fourth inning with a leadoff Mookie Betts walk and a Xander Bogaerts double. The Red Sox were down just 2-0 at that point. Then the heart of the lineup -- J.D. Martinez, Steve Pearce and Mitch Moreland -- failed to capitalize by flying out, lining out and striking out, respectively.
"[Paxton]'s stuff was good today, but at the same time, we've faced guys with good stuff before," Cora said. "We just didn't get the job done today with second and third."
But all of the impetus for change doesn't just fall on Sale. Outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. said the offense simply isn't executing on any level right now.
"We haven't clicked as a team," Bradley said. "Everybody needs to start doing everything as a whole. We just haven't put it all together yet."
Here's the obligatory reminder that it's still early -- we're just halfway through April. On this date last season, the New York Mets led the National League East with a 12-3 record before, spoiler alert, finishing with a 77-85 record. Shohei Ohtani didn't need Tommy John surgery yet. The Houston Astros were in third place in the AL West, behind the Seattle Mariners and Los Angeles Angels, who would finish the season in third and fourth place, respectively. Donald Glover hadn't yet released "This is America." Meghan Markle and Prince Harry weren't married.
That's all to say the time to panic if you're a Red Sox fan is not right now. Not yet, at least. But Boston can't afford to play out its worst-case scenario for much longer if it wants to have a shot of defending its World Series title.
"I've gotta find a way to pitch better," Sale said. "This is flat-out embarrassing for my family, for my team, for our fans. It's about as bad as it gets. I have to pitch better. I keep saying the same things, but at the end of the day, you go out and give up four runs there, five runs there, seven runs there. If I get into the sixth, seventh inning like I should, that's who I am. I'm supposed to pitch the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, finish games and save our bullpen. Gotta cut it off when we're losing and keep the winning streaks going. That's not who I've been."
On Tuesday, Sale threw his slider 49.5 percent of the time, the highest rate of his career. Yankees batters went 1-for-9 with three strikeouts in at-bats that ended in his slider. Sale threw his four-seamer just 35.5 percent of the time, a drop from his full-season fastball usage of 50.2 percent from 2018. Yankees batters found success, too, finishing the evening 5-for-8 in at-bats that ended in the four-seamer against Sale.
"It sucks. I'm not gonna sugarcoat it. I flat-out stink right now," Sale said. "When it's going good, it's good. When you're going bad, it's pretty bad. So, hey, show up tomorrow, put on the shoes and get back after it."