The Boston Red Sox get back to work Tuesday night in Philadelphia, beginning a quick two-game series against a Phillies team that has its sights on the playoffs.

It will be a brief interlude of meaningful baseball in the midst of a season that has seen the Red Sox beat up on some truly bad teams. Witness Boston’s four-game sweep of the listless Baltimore Orioles over the weekend.

The most encouraging sign during that series was the return of Chris Sale, who had been on the disabled list with mild inflammation in his left shoulder. Sale threw five dominant innings Sunday, striking out 12 on the way to his 12th win. He threw just 68 pitches and lowered his ERA to 1.97. He became the first Boston pitcher to post an ERA as low as 0.20 over seven consecutive starts since ERA became an official stat in 1913.

No doubt it would have been easy for Manager Alex Cora to leave his ace out there for another inning. Or more. Sale was in complete command as he extended his scoreless-inning streak to 28.

Normally, a manager lets a top-of-the-rotation pitcher like Sale go for as long as he can.

As we know, these aren’t normal times. The Red Sox are a lock to win 100 or more games for just the fourth time. At their current pace, they will challenge the MLB record for wins in a season (116 by the 2001 Seattle Mariners). With a large lead in the AL East, it’s a foregone conclusion Boston will win the division for a franchise-record third straight year.

Which is why Sale’s day was done after just five innings. Cora has been limiting his ace’s workload since the start of spring training, with an eye toward unleashing him in the playoffs. Now that the postseason is creeping into view (the first wafts of cold air were felt in New England late last week) it’s more important than ever that Sale is put in a position to succeed in October.

“We have to be disciplined,” Cora said after Sunday’s game. “The way he was throwing the ball it was very tempting for us to say ‘One more inning,’ but we’ve been disciplined the whole season and we stick with the plan.”

Boston’s lead in the division has allowed Cora to stick with his plan of resting players whenever they show signs of needing it.

The Sox won Sunday’s game with Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi on the bench. David Price won’t pitch until this weekend, giving him six days’ rest between starts. Sale will get a week off before returning to the mound.

It’s easy to give players a rest after the team separated itself from the rest of the pack, but don’t forget that Cora has done this since the beginning of the season. He likes to give a player a day off just before or after an off day on the schedule, meaning the player gets a full 48 hours of rest.

There are times you scratch your head at the lineup, but the Sox have shown they are capable of winning games with any of their 25 players. They have gotten contributions from everyone, and Cora’s plan has paid off.

Boston’s 85 wins are the most through 120 games played in franchise history. The Sox only need to go .500 the rest of the season to break the franchise’s single-season record of 105 wins, set 106 years ago.

Of course, the Red Sox are much better than a team that only would play .500 baseball over 42 games. And as long as Sale’s shoulder feels fine, there’s plenty of reason to believe they are the type of team that will win a lot of games in October, too.

Tom Caron is a studio host for the Red Sox broadcast on NESN. His column appears in the Portland Press Herald on Tuesdays.


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