At 3:15 p.m. Tuesday, a dazzling mid-summer possibility for the Red Sox became a bit more tangible.
Chris Sale stepped onto the mound in the home bullpen at Fenway Park for the first time since 2019. He threw 25 pitches — a mix of fastballs, sliders, and changeups. The lefthander did so, he said afterward, not with the feeling of a pitcher trying to recover from a career-halting surgery but instead as someone who is getting ready to compete.
“When I’m throwing, I feel normal. I feel like I did when I was a kid,” Sale said. “I feel like I’m starting to build up as a pitcher as opposed to on a back end of a rehab. ... I don’t feel like I’m rehab-throwing. I feel like I’m pitching-throwing. That’s a good spot to be in.
“Being here, the energy is definitely higher,” he added. “I feel a sense of urgency when I’m around here. There’s nothing like stepping out on that field, even at 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”
That said, the 32-year-old is nowhere near returning to the Red Sox rotation. Manager Alex Cora, after watching Sale throw, asked pitching coach Dave Bush and trainer Brad Pearson to compare the pitcher’s current state with that of a pitcher preparing for a season.
“They kind of said it’s a bullpen in January,” Cora said. “They basically said don’t get too excited. But it felt good to see him. It feels good to have him around.”
That view doesn’t exactly align with Sale’s ideal target date for pitching in the big leagues for the first time since he struck out 12 batters in 6 2/3 innings in Cleveland on Aug. 13, 2019.
“If it was up to me, I’d be starting tomorrow,” Sale said.
But it is not up to him, and Sale has accepted that.
Both Sale and the Red Sox have avoided any discussions of a timetable for his return. They are instead focused on each incremental increase in activity. It is hard to say conclusively when he might be back in the big leagues when the team will take the coming days simply to figure out how many pitches Sale will throw in his next bullpen session.
Despite the process-centric view of his activities, however, Sale was unequivocal on the question of whether he expects to pitch in the big leagues this year.
“One hundred percent. I mean, unless something crazy happens,” Sale said, pausing to search for a wooden object to rap with his knuckles. “I’ll be there soon enough.”
If Sale does follow an uninterrupted course of his rehab, it’s not hard to connect the dots based on the suggestion that he’s at the rough equivalent of a January-ish stage of a healthy starter’s build-up. Rotation members are typically working off a mound by late January, with roughly two months of work in front of them.
If Sale is on that timeline, he’d be reintroduced for perhaps the final six to eight weeks of the season – a point near the trade deadline at which the Sox would surely view him as a potentially game-changing addition.
Are there shortcuts? Is there any chance that Sale could accelerate his return by returning as a reliever, thus allowing him to build back up to an inning or two rather than a full starter’s workload?
“I haven’t really thought about that, honestly,” Sale said. “If they told me, ‘Hey, we need a guy in the bullpen and we’ll build you up there instead of doing like a rehab assignment,’ hell, I would be game for that. The quicker I can get on this team, I would like that. But that is way above my pay grade and where I’m at right now. I’m focused on my next day and getting off the mound and whatever the next step is, take that, but I haven’t really talked about that a whole lot.”
Nor should he, since the Sox are extremely unlikely to try to rush Sale back instead of having him focus on the routine they hope will re-establish him as an elite starter for the remainder of his five-year, $145 million contract.
The team has been methodical and unhurried in Sale’s rehab to this point. That’s not going to change for the sake of pennant-race expediency. (It’s worth recalling that the team came to regret its decision to try to hit the gas pedal by moving Nate Eovaldi to the bullpen when he rehabbed from an elbow procedure in 2019.)
The point for both the team and the pitcher is to get back the best version of a pitcher who was on a Hall of Fame track through 2018.
“I expect to be myself, be the guy that I’ve always been,” Sale said. “I just started throwing breaking balls. The first couple weren’t pretty. My expectation level is still as high if not higher than it’s ever been. I was down in Florida, I was with [rehabbing Red Sox reliever Ryan] Brasier, and I threw my first breaking ball. He goes, ‘You look like you’re confused or something. What did you expect that to look like?’ I was like, ‘I expected that to be nasty. I didn’t expect for the catcher to have to jump to catch it.’ I fully expect to be who I am and do what I do at the highest level.”