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One-on-one with Chris Sale: What type of pitcher will he be when he returns to the Red Sox?

It's difficult for Chris Sale to be so close to the action and not be able to participate.
It's difficult for Chris Sale to be so close to the action and not be able to participate.John Tlumacki

Fenway Park is calling to Chris Sale.

Prior to a game during the recent homestand, the Red Sox lefthander popped out of the dugout, opened his arms to the sky, and basked in his surroundings: blue sky, hot summer day, fans filling the park, anticipation and energy coalescing.

“How does it get better than this?” he said.

For the 32-year-old, there is an obvious answer: by returning to the mound.

It’s not hard to envision Sale inspiring a mid-August Fenway frenzy if, in the middle of a postseason push by the Red Sox, he unleashes his first pitch in a big league game since Aug. 13, 2019, and his first at Fenway since he concluded eight scoreless innings with a dozen strikeouts on Aug. 8, 2019.

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“It’s been two years since I’ve thrown a pitch on that mound,” said Sale. “That seems kind of wild to me.”

The end to that absence finally is starting to feel obtainable. Last week Sale left Fort Myers, Fla., and joined the Red Sox in Boston precisely so he could add a layer of adrenaline and intensity to his preparations for competition.

“For a little bit, you feel like I’m a glorified gym member,” he said. “I come to the field, get my arm rubbed on, go work out, and then that’s the end of my day.

“I’m wired to be a ballplayer. I can feel like, ‘Hey, there’s something else I’m missing here.’ ”

That something no longer seems so distant. His preparations have advanced to a new point.

Sale’s bullpen sessions are increasingly aggressive. Within the next couple of weeks, he plans to have batters stepping into the box and then hitters taking swings against his repertoire.

For now, Sale does his throwing in the bullpen.
For now, Sale does his throwing in the bullpen.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Sale believes he knows what will happen when he starts adding a level of competition to his buildup. But he also acknowledges a strange uncertainty about what ordinarily would be a fairly simple question: Who will he be when he returns to games?

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After all, in the two seasons prior to the Tommy John surgery, Sale performed in very different ways. In 2018, he threw harder than he had in his life — regularly topping out at 98-100 m.p.h. from May through July — while going on the most dominant run of his career.

But Sale was diminished in the second half of that year, missing much of it with a shoulder injury. While he has no regrets about what became the most satisfying season of his career based on the trophy-hoisting conclusion, he now recognizes that he probably reached for more than his health could allow.

By contrast, in 2019, Sale’s fastball velocity fluctuated throughout the year, but was mostly at the lowest point of his career. While there were stretches when Sale felt healthy, the more memorable ones were when he didn’t en route to an elbow strain that ended his year in mid-August and ultimately required the surgery from which he is still working back.

Mid-career reboot

So whom does Sale aspire to be when he returns?

“From 2015 to 2017 was kind of my sweet spot,” Sale said of a three-year run in which he averaged 216 innings and 272 strikeouts (a 31.2 percent strikeout rate) with a 3.21 ERA in his last two seasons with the White Sox and his first in Boston. “That’s where everything kind of clicked. My body was working, my arm was working, my stuff was working.

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“I feel like I’ve gotten everything back to where I can be able to have that again. I’ve done things since [the surgery] that have put me in a better position than I have ever been in in my life. I feel strong. I feel healthy. Throwing without pain is nice, too.”

Sale went 17-8 in the 2017 season.
Sale went 17-8 in the 2017 season.John Tlumacki

Toward that end, Sale has tried to use this time as a sort of mid-career reboot. He’s paying greater attention to sleep, hydration, and nutrition in hopes of many healthy years ahead.

“I know how hard I’m throwing right now and what that could possibly turn into,” he said. “That’s exciting to see and know and think about.

“But to be able to sit here right now and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to throw 92-94 for the rest of my life — or 97-99,’ it would be impossible to do that.

“It’s everyone’s goal — play this game as well as you can for as long as you possibly can. The biggest thing for me is just health and what goes into that.

“If you have a high-performance car and put the best possible fuel in it, you keep it in the garage, you’re taking care of it. Take that same car, put the best gas in it, take a handful of dirt and throw that in the gas tank, what’s going to happen? It’s going to break down.”

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Sale has experienced the breakdown — trying to pitch through pain, trying to rehab from surgery, the agonizing stretches when progress can seem nonexistent. He and the team share a goal of avoiding another setback, which explains the methodical rehab schedule.

At the same time, there are short-term considerations, foremost: When might Sale be ready to return to the mound this year?

The closest he came to a pronouncement on that point was to joke — while referencing the pandemic-compressed 60-game season of 2020 season — that he was getting ready for his own 60-game season this year.

Change in perspective

While a return in early to mid-August seems possible barring a setback, Sale has stopped trying to peg the success of his rehab to the date of his return. He found that such an approach made him miserable during the offseason, when neck stiffness, a COVID-19 infection, and then back soreness jarred his timeline.

“It was killing me,” he said. “From the moment I found out I needed [surgery], I said, ‘Shoot, I’ll be a year out. I know they’ll probably be a little conservative with me. I’ll be pitching for the team no later than June.’

“That was worst-case scenario to me. You can only imagine what that was like to see that [not happen].

“Every day that goes by is another day on the back end. That’s what I was getting caught up in — ‘Shoot, now best-case scenario is June, now best-case is …'

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“I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing on a daily basis. I was just going to the field every day, ‘June, June, June, June — well, [expletive], now July, July, July.’ It just didn’t help.”

His perspective changed around the start of the year. People around him — family, trainers, medical staff. and eventually teammates in spring training — helped him reframe how he judged the success of his rehab and understand that seemingly small milestones were significant.

“I was getting down, ‘I’m just throwing 60 feet, and people are giving me knuckles. I threw a ball my son could catch. Actually, my son is throwing harder than me right now,’ ” said Sale.

“[Garrett Richards] was like, ‘Man, you’ve got to look at that like a start. You go out there, throw eight innings, punch out 10 and give up one run, that’s a big day. This is now your eight innings right here. This is your success. You’ve got to have that same feeling with this.’ ”

Sale believes his head is on straight when it comes to assessing his progress and not targeting a specific return date.
Sale believes his head is on straight when it comes to assessing his progress and not targeting a specific return date. Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Of late, the successes are becoming bigger, more frequent, and closer to the ultimate goal. When Sale steps on a mound for a bullpen session, it is as a pitcher rather than a patient. He is throwing pain-free, able to visualize pitch shapes that he then tries to trace as he unleashes a ball.

There are many steps ahead, of course — an increased number of pitches and greater frequency of bullpen sessions, a batter standing in the box and not swinging, live batting practice, minor league rehab games. Sale is trying to remain mindful of the ground beneath his feet, not looking too far toward the horizon.

But he’s human. He can’t help but peek and imagine what lies ahead this summer.

“I still have some steps that I know I have to hit before I can start getting real, real antsy,” Sale said. “But especially after we win, you go stand out there [in a handshake line], we’re standing on the mound, and yeah, I stare down the barrel to see what it’s like, still.”

The time keeps getting closer when he can stop imagining that feeling and start experiencing it anew.


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