Chris Sale hoped this was just another bump in the road.
In early March, the Red Sox lefthander relayed the news that he had been diagnosed with a flexor strain, leaning into his feelings with as much conviction as he would throw his fastball. Sale didn’t know what would come next. He hated the uncertainty.
Sale got his answer on Thursday.
The Red Sox announced that Sale will undergo Tommy John surgery.
On a Thursday night conference call, Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom lamented the loss of the veteran lefthander.
“Needless to say, this is a tough thing for Chris, and tough for all of us here at the Red Sox,” said Bloom. “While we are bummed for him, we know he will attack this rehab like he has everything else in his career.”
Bloom said Sale threw Friday and Sunday. On Tuesday, he was playing catch, and ramped up his throwing. That’s where he experienced enough pain to stop.
When it came to the timetable for Sale’s impending surgery, Bloom could offer no specifics. The COVID-19 pandemic has put many elective surgeries on hold. Bloom said he expects Sale’s surgery to be soon, but is also taking into account the coronavirus.
Needless to say, this is a tough thing for Chris, and tough for all of us here at the Red Sox. While we are bummed for him, we know he will attack this rehab like he has everything else in his career.
“Obviously something we’re mindful of, No. 1, the difficulty generally surrounding elective surgeries with what our country is going through and also making sure that we’re doing this in a way that doesn’t put any extra burden on the public health system,” Bloom said. “Those are definitely considerations as we work to get this set up and get this done. We’re going to make sure that we do it in a way that doesn’t place any undue burden on everybody who is suffering as a result of the outbreak."
Bloom said the team wants to be competitive this season, but also needs to remain mindful of the bigger picture.
“I think Chris Sale is the type of player that you can’t just replace. He is an elite performer,” Bloom said. “Those guys are hard to come by. Needless to say, if he’s unavailable to us for all of 2020, that’s a big blow. Obviously we have had a number of different things to consider in the last week-plus, and of course we’re in a little bit of a hiatus right now in terms of the schedule. There’s been a lot of other things on our plate."
The Red Sox rotation was already thin for a 2020 season that has been indefinitely suspended, and when and if it resumes, they will have to press on without Sale in the mix and fill three rotation spots.
“I think there’s been a lot of talk about the openers and we’ve talked about that, and also the guys we brought into camp, guys that are here, [Brian Johnson] being one of them, you guys have asked a lot of questions about him,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “So we’re going to try to have to figure out if [Ryan Weber] is one of those spots, then we have to obviously figure out the fifth spot.”
Sale threw a simulated game March 1, and after his elbow didn’t respond well, he went for an MRI. Opinions were given by team doctors, plus Dr. James Andrews and Dr. Neal ElAttrache. At that juncture, all agreed that Sale had a chance of avoiding surgery.
The Sox slowed the process a bit more, shutting down Sale, then putting him through a series of workouts to see how his arm responded.
Sale had been throwing in Fort Myers, Fla., in recent days but still couldn’t get over the hump. As one league source put it, with the continuing discomfort, surgery became a “no-brainer.”
The news isn’t a huge surprise when you look at the timeline. Sale was shut down last season after his Aug. 13 start against the Indians and didn’t do any serious throwing until his March 1 bullpen session. He had developed pneumonia upon his arrival in spring camp, so his workout schedule already was delayed.
That Sale felt pain in his elbow nearly seven months after last pitching in a meaningful game was a bad sign.
Considering the type of pitcher Sale is — one who relies on blowing batters away — it was difficult to see him pitching through this the way, say, a David Price might. Price was diagnosed with a flexor strain in 2017, but he returned to form the following season.
“I can’t give this a 90 percent effort and be OK with that,” Sale said recently. “That’s not who I am. That’s not how I ever played this game.
"You watched any game I played, it’s everything I got until the manager takes the ball out of my hand. That’s what I got to get back to. Whether it works or doesn’t, I’m not afraid of the other side.”
When there was still hope that Sale would return this year, he didn’t mince his words.
“It sucks,” Sale said. “Obviously, I don’t want to be sitting here giving you this information. It’s a tough spot, myself, this team, and the organization going forward.”
Now, the foreseeable future has a definite answer and an undetermined timeline for when the Red Sox ace will return to action.