Red Sox ace Chris Sale is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel in his long and challenging recovery from Tommy John surgery.
The lefthander threw a live batting practice session Wednesday at Fenway Park, with the full support of teammates and coaching staff watching from behind the plate. Seeing his fastball top out at 95 miles per hour was a positive, but coming back to the ballpark Thursday with nothing but the expected soreness was the strongest sign that he is close to returning to the mound.
“As soon as possible,” Sale said. “Yesterday was a good day, another step in the right direction. Came in today feeling really good, was able to move my arm around, and soreness in all the good spots. So just keep trucking forward.”
Sale is set to throw another two innings of live batting practice this weekend in Fort Myers, Fla., while the team is on the road. If that goes well, he will begin a rehab assignment with Triple A Worcester. Sale said he didn’t know how many rehab starts he would need but didn’t think it would take many.
“This is really my first time going through anything like this,” Sale said. “I wouldn’t assume it’s going to be a whole lot. I don’t think I need, like, seven starts, you know? If we keep having days like I had yesterday, then I would say sooner rather than later.
“But I also know not to get too far ahead of myself in this process. So I don’t have an exact answer for that question, but I’m feeling good and I know that if I keep doing what I’m doing, it’ll be quicker than not.”
Much will depend on Sale throwing as well as he did Wednesday and having his body respond positively the day after.
“Those are the two biggest things for me right now,” Sale said. “How’s the ball look when I’m out there pitching, and when I wake up the next morning, what does it feel like? Those are going to be the two biggest keys from here on out more so than anything else.”
While the Sox lead the AL East, their starting rotation’s 4.57 ERA is 21st in the majors. Depth has been an issue, and Sale is the missing piece.
“Our staff has done a hell of a job up to this point,” Sale said. “These guys have been holding it down unbelievably well. We wouldn’t be in the position we are.
“We’ve got the best offense in baseball, there’s no doubt about that. But you’ve got to throw the ball too, and our guys have done an unbelievable job of keeping us in games and putting big starts up when we need it.
“And for me, I’ve just got to come in and do my job. I’ve got to continue that body of work that they’ve been doing the whole year.”
The excitement throughout the organization when Sale threw Wednesday was undeniable, and Sale knows the kind of impact he’s expected to make once he returns, but he still has to get through the last leg of the recovery process.
“I don’t want to get too ahead of myself,” Sale said. “But it is an exciting thought. I do know that when I do get back here and when we start rolling and getting into games and stuff like that, I’m going to be ready to go, that’s for sure.”
Nate Eovaldi has three scoreless starts this season, and two have come in his last two outings. He shut out the Royals over seven innings in Thursday’s 15-1 win, giving the bullpen some much-needed rest.
Eovaldi struck out six and allowed five hits before handing the ball over to Matt Andriese.
“They started putting the ball in play early, he made adjustments, and he went deep into the game,” said manager Alex Cora. “If I wanted to, he could have gone nine innings there. But thinking about the group and what we need to do to get people better, we needed Matt to go there and pitch two innings because we need him to. But [Eovaldi] has been amazing.”
Over his last eight starts, Eovaldi is 5-2 with a 2.27 ERA.
“I don’t know where people see him as starters for All-Star or whatever,” Cora said. “But for me, he’s had a great first half and he started the second one on the right foot.”
The Sox are now 27-17 at home. After starting the season 10-11 at Fenway, they have gone 17-6.
Since dropping two of three to the A’s in May, their only series loss at home has come against Houston.
“We needed this place to be a home-field advantage,” Cora said.
Cora didn’t have to look far into the past for an example of the Sox struggling at home. In 2019, they went 38-43 at Fenway, including dropping eight of nine to the division-rival Rays.
“We never felt comfortable,” Cora said. “People would come here and beat us.”
Cora said having fans in the ballpark makes Fenway more difficult for opponents.
“It’s tough to play in this building, too, without fans, but they’re bringing it,” Cora said. “And I know the West Coast, we’ve got a lot of fans over there and hopefully they show up too and they help us.”
As the Sox navigate a stretch of 16 games in as many days, Cora gave Xander Bogaerts a breather Thursday, starting him at DH and plugging in Marwin Gonzalez at shortstop. Looking ahead, Cora plans to rest J.D. Martinez Friday and use Rafael Devers as the DH in the series opener against the A’s.
Cora said he was thinking about the long term.
“That’s something that we pay attention to,” he said. “And I know people sometimes question why give these guys an off day, but we’re not just thinking about the present, we think about the future. And we’re here for the long run.
“We know where we’re at right now. We expected to play deep into the season, and for us to be at the top of our game, we have to take care of players.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.