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108 Stitches Newsletter with Alex Speier

Monday, April 24, 2017
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For many, Red Sox lefthander Chris Sale’s dominance early this season – most recently, in his remarkable performance against the Blue Jays on Thursday – has been a revelation. For Steve Selsky, it comes as anything but a surprise.

The Red Sox’ reserve first baseman/outfielder met Sale in 2009, when the two played together in the Cape League for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. Selsky, who’d just finished his freshman year at Arizona, knew little of his teammates when he arrived at Y-D. In Sale’s first outing of the season, however, he learned plenty about the lefthander.

“I think he struck out, like, the first six guys. That’s when I was just like, ‘Wow.’ You could just tell, the ball came out of his hand different. Guys didn’t see it well. His ball moved differently. You knew he had something special.”

On the field, Sale’s stuff made an obvious impression. There weren’t a lot of pitchers who threw in the mid-90s, fewer still (if any) who could do so with a breaking ball and changeup, and none who were capable of doing so with Sale’s arm slot. There’s a reason why he forged a ridiculous 57-to-9 strikeout-to-walk rate that summer.

Yet the insights that Selsky gleaned about the pitcher off the field were revealing in their own way. Selsky didn’t have a car, so Sale picked him up every day in a beaten-up Tahoe and drove his younger teammate to the field. In those rides, Selsky learned that his teammate looked under the proverbial hood in search of information about details taken for granted by many.

“The first thing I noticed in his car, he slowed down his music. I’d hear a song and ask, ‘Is this a re-mix?’ He said, ‘No, I slow it down. Some rap songs, they talk so fast and slur words, you don’t understand what they’re saying.’ I said, ‘Wow, I never met someone who did that. How do you even do that?’” recalled Selsky. “When I saw him in spring training [this year], that was the first thing I told him. He said, ‘You remember that?’ But it felt like it was yesterday.”

Selsky also recalled traveling down a two-line highway at about 40 mph. A clicking sound puzzled Sale, and so he put the car into neutral and turned off the engine as the Tahoe continued down the road to try to get a better sense of what in the car was making the noise before restarting it.

“I’d never been in a car with anyone who’d done that,” said Selsky. “I had no idea what he was doing.”

There were other instances of Sale’s attentiveness. Selsky threw an inning that summer – his first time on the mound since high school – and he appreciated the specifics of Sale’s feedback on the outing.

“He took a notice to it,” said Selsky.

In some ways, Sale’s ability to focus on the details of what was around him helped to explain to Selsky why he ended up being so good on the mound – how he ended up doing such a fantastic job of repeating an atypical delivery, how he could leave batters looking overwhelmed even as they knew that he’d be pouring a heavy diet of pitches in the strike zone.

“Something little like that can go a long way,” said Selsky. “The smallest thing, paying attention to the details when you’re pitching is key. You pick up on little things and learn from it. It helps you pitching through the game.”

Selsky got a brief glimpse of the experience of being on the opposite side of the field from Sale later that summer, after he moved from Yarmouth-Dennis to Orleans. Selsky faced him once and got a hit on a first-pitch fastball, though he notes a significant asterisk on the accomplishment.

“When I got traded, he just told me, ‘If I ever face you, I’m just going to throw you fastballs.’ I said, ‘Cool, I’ve got a 95 mph sinker that I’m trying to hit.’ It doesn’t help knowing,” said Selsky. “He told me what was coming, and even then, I didn’t hit it that good. I tell people, ‘I’m 1-for-1 off Chris Sale, but he told me what was coming and I still didn’t hit it very good. That’s how good he is – he can tell you what’s coming and you still won’t hit it.’”

Selsky was one of just many players that summer – and in the eight years since – who couldn’t get his barrel on Sale’s offerings.

“That’s how you know the guy’s ball is just moving differently, and he’s deceptive,” said Selsky. “If you’re deceptive, have good stuff, and throw strikes, just pound the zone because you know they’re not going to hit it, you’re going to have success. He did that literally from day one that I’ve seen him, and he’s only gotten better.”

The Red Sox are now getting their own up-close view of that ongoing development.

To the links!

ABOUT LAST NIGHT: Sale was incredible, and seemed poised to claim a 1-0 win before closer Craig Kimbrel – brought in with the starter at 102 pitches, the fewest he’d thrown in any start – gave up a leadoff homer in the ninth. The Sox rallied for three runs in the 10th on Mookie Betts’ bases-loaded double, and Kimbrel punched out the side to close out the game, but despite the win, the Sox clubhouse seemed strangely subdued after Sale wasn’t rewarded for his incredible start with a victory, writes Peter Abraham.

Nick Cafardo writes that the ninth-inning should have been Sale’s.

Sale’s starts are just “different,” Red Sox pitching coach Carl Willis – who served in the same capacity for Cy Young winners CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Felix Hernandeztold Rob Bradford of WEEI.com.

Red Sox bullpen coach Dana LeVangie, who was the team’s bullpen catcher during Pedro Martinez’s heyday, tells Tim Britton of the Providence Journal that Sale is the first pitcher he’s witnessed up close who evoked memories of Martinez.

Xander Bogaerts suffered a jammed thumb on a pivotal ninth-inning hit – a laser down the right-field line against Blue Jays closer Roberto Osuna – that nearly positioned Sale and the Sox to claim a 1-0 victory. Bogaerts now has eight go-ahead hits in the eighth inning or later since the start of the 2015 season, most on the Red Sox in that time. Britton examines the thought process that once again permitted Bogaerts to deliver a pivotal hit in the late-innings.

Matt Collins of Over The Monster writes that, rather than focusing on the player Bogaerts was supposed to become as he moved through the minors, it’s time to appreciate the shortstop for the tremendous player he’s become.

Aside from one bad pitch for a game-tying homer that ended a streak of 25 consecutive converted save opportunities (other than that, Mrs. Lincoln…), Kimbrel once again displayed dominance beyond what he showed through most of 2016. Bradford reports that Kimbrel’s inconsistency last year may have stemmed from a finger injury he started early in the year, which helped to set some bad mechanical habits in motion.

PRICE CHECK: It’s been a while since the Red Sox have had an encouraging development with David Price. The team is currently suggesting that his rehab has encountered a “slowdown” rather than a “setback,” but either way, Peter Abraham writes in his notebook, the timetable for his return to the Red Sox rotation continues to get pushed back.

HEALTHY OUTLOOK: With Jackie Bradley Jr. set to return from his disabled list stint on Friday against the Orioles, the Red Sox are poised to have their complete lineup for the first time since Opening Day, writes Ian Browne of MLB.com. Of course, the possibility of a full lineup presupposes that Bogaerts will be part of it. He expressed some uncertainty about whether he would start on Friday.

UNHEALTHY OUTLOOK: The 3-12 Blue Jays may be rapidly arriving at the sort of crossroads faced by the Red Sox in 2014, when they traded several veteran assets at the trade deadline. Shi Davidi of SportsNet talked to Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski about the need for anticipated contenders to pivot and become sellers.

MINOR DETAILS: Michael Chavis’ four-homer, two-day binge reflected in part on the success of some new study habits he started implementing this spring. My minor league notebook examines the 2014 first-rounder’s efforts to develop into a more consistent hitter in 2017.

In Triple A Pawtucket, Henry Owens had a mixed day. The bad: He needed 107 pitches to log just 4 2/3 innings during which he allowed a pair of runs on four hits, including a solo homer by Yoan Moncada (batting righthanded) to lead off the game against an 88 m.p.h. fastball. He also walked four. The good: He struck out eight of the 22 batters he faced. Though his walk rate is an unacceptable 14.9 percent, close to its 2016 level, his strikeout rate has jumped from 22.2 percent a year ago to 29.9 percent through three starts.

Both Double A Portland and High A Salem were rained out.

Single A Greenville lost 6-1, on a day that would have been Jason Groome’s turn in the rotation. The 18-year-old remains sidelined by his mild lat strain. Third baseman Bobby Dalbec went 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts, his sixth game with multiple punchouts in 14 contests this year. He has a 33.9 percent strikeout rate.

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.

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