Disbelief was the strongest sentiment after this 38-12 defeat. With ten minutes to go, Bath were only 19-12 adrift and looked like they might go on to win. But three tries in the final few minutes for Sale, by Chris Mayor, Mark Cueto and Chris Jones, flattered the league-leaders, and ensured, with the result at Leicester, that they will finish the regular season at the top of the table.
Needing one win from their last two Guinness Premiership matches to be certain of a home tie in the play-off semi-finals, Sale fielded their strongest side. They weathered the storm of an energetic start by Bath, who with ball in hand were playing in the creative style that Brian Ashton has been trying to instil throughout the side.
Successive attacking moves in the opening minutes posed a real threat to the Sale line. A tapped penalty by Andy Williams maintained the pressure and yielded another penalty, but Chris Malone kicked to touch rather than going for goal, and the chance to score went begging with a wonky line-out throw.
Soon after, Malone threaded a neat grubber kick over the line but Nick Abendanon, making his first Premiership start, could not quite control the touchdown.
In contrast, Sale provided a lesson in how to take the most of their opportunities. They probably saw less of the ball and territory but three moments of indiscipline by Bath within Charlie Hodgson's range saw the England fly-half slot three penalties for the home side.
But as half-time approach, Sililo Martens, the Sale scrum-half, was penalised for a high tackle on Joe Maddock. From the resultant lineout, Malone took the ball, chipped it towards the posts and touched down under the sticks, making his conversion attempt simple, and Bath went in to the break just 9-7 down.
Sale struck first after half-time, when Hodgson punished Bath again. Sale looked very dangerous on the counter-attack or with turnover ball, and although they twice wasted overlaps, Hodgson eventually gained the elusive try, also converting it.
19-7 down, Bath now found their way into the Sale half, and nearly scored via two cross-field kicks by Malone, the first intended for Zak Feaunati, the second for Maddock, who knocked on under a challenge by Elvis Seveali'i.
Sale could not get out of their own half, as Bath controlled the possession and did not let up the frantic pace. Bath's persistence was rewarded when James Hudson slid over on the far right-hand side. The intensity took its toll, leading to uncontested scrums when David Flatman had to be replaced.
But Sale's concluding scores added mental bruises to the physical knocks. Ashton said: "With a side of match-winners like Sale you can't afford to lose concentration."
On a positive note, he added: "It was difficult for them playing like that but it's the way we want to go. I was quite encouraged by the ambition we showed."
BATH: Maddock; Abendanon (Davis, 78), Crockett (Stephenson, 62), Barkley, Bory; Malone, Williams (Walshe, 18-30); Flatman (Goodman, 71), Dixon (Hawkins, 57), Bell (Loader, 55), Hudson (Fidler, 73), Short, Faamatuainu, Delve, Feaunati (capt).
SALE: Robinson (capt); Cueto, Taylor, Seveali'i (Mayor, 60), Ripol; Hodgson, Martens (Wigglesworth, 66); Coutts (Faure, 53), Titterrell, Turner (Stewart, 62), Jones, Schofield (Lobbe, 53), White, Lund, Chabal (Day, 75).
Referee: Martin Fox.
13: Hodgson pen, 3-0
20: Hodgson pen, 6-0
30: Hodgson pen, 9-0
35: Malone try and con, 9-7
42: Hodgson pen, 12-7
48: Hodgson try and con, 19-7
69: Hudson try, 19-12
76: Mayor try, Hodgson con, 26-12
78: Cueto try, 31-12
80: Jones try, Hodgson con, 38-12