NEW YORK — While the Red Sox did not play on Thursday due to the COVID-19-induced postponement of their game against the Yankees, a potential game-changing second-half contributor for the team hit a milestone by getting back on the field in Florida.
Lefthander Chris Sale, in his first game action since undergoing Tommy John surgery in March of last year, started his minor league rehab assignment by throwing three scoreless innings for the Red Sox’ Florida Complex League affiliate against the Orioles’ FCL team.
In a nearly empty park — roughly 40 people were in attendance at the Orioles’ Sarasota spring training complex — Sale allowed four hits (a double and three singles) while striking out five. He didn’t walk anyone. In an outing where he threw 39 pitches, Sale topped out at 97 miles per hour while sitting at 93-94 mph, according to Red Sox manager Alex Cora.
“He’s very excited,” said Cora. “Going into the game he felt good, during the game he felt good, after the game he felt good. … He said he got hit around, quote-unquote. They were swinging the bats, which is good. I think competition is always great, not dominating at will. That’s always good confidence wise, but I think the fact that he had to work is a plus for us.”
Cora said that if Sale shows no ill effects of the outing on Friday, his next step likely would be a rehab outing with Double-A Portland on Tuesday. The Sea Dogs host the Harrisburg Senators in Portland next week.
“So far, so good,” Cora said of Sale.
Tanner Houck ready to flex
Jarren Duran wasn’t the only potential contributor summoned from Triple-A Worcester. The Red Sox also called up righthander Tanner Houck, providing them with a versatile swingman expected to help balance the workloads of both the rotation and bullpen.
The Sox envision a flexible role for Houck, alternately employing him as a multi-innings reliever (similar to the capacity in which they’ve used Garrett Whitlock) and a starter. Houck will be available out of the bullpen during the weekend series against the Yankees — presuming it is played — before slotting into the rotation against the Blue Jays next Wednesday. He’ll then shuttle between the rotation and bullpen.
With the Red Sox opening the second half with games scheduled on 18 consecutive games (albeit with the first one having been postponed on Thursday), the team believes Houck can help.
“Tough stretch here. Lot of games. We feel like we have to take care of our guys,” said Cora. “Adding this kid is going to make us better.”
The 25-year-old produced a 4.35 ERA with 12 strikeouts and one walk in 10⅓ innings over three early-season big league games (two starts) before starting the minor league season in Triple-A Worcester. He spent over five weeks on the injured list due to a sore flexor muscle but returned to the WooSox in June, forging a 4.50 ERA while striking out 22 and walking seven in 18 innings.
“It was a little hiccup in the road,” Houck said of the injury. “I took the time, took advantage of it in the best way I could in terms of developing the strength side of things as well as the development of the pitching side. … [I’m] back now feeling stronger and better than ever. I’m excited to go back out there.”
When Houck does the rotation, the Red Sox expect his addition to the rotation to be just that — an addition. Cora said that Garrett Richards, who struggled down the stretch in the first half, remains on track to make his start on Monday against the Blue Jays in Buffalo.
First look for Christian Arroyo
With Duran on the roster, Kiké Hernández seems likely to see a significant increase in time at second base — a development that would cut into Christian Arroyo’s playing time at the position. In order to increase the pathways for Arroyo to remain available, he’s started working out at first base — a position he’s never played professionally, but where he expressed immediate comfort.
“I talked to him today and said let me know when you’re comfortable, and he said I’m comfortable right now,” said Cora. “We’ll keep getting him at-bats. He’ll play against every lefty we face, we know that. But I do believe facing righties is something that helps him out and we’ll find ways to get him in there against righties.” …
With Thursday’s game postponed, the Red Sox did not have to make official transactions to add Duran or Houck to the roster — and thus did not have to announce corresponding roster moves. But Katie Morrison of MassLive.com reported that righthander Austin Brice —called up by the Sox on Sunday— was at Polar Park in Worcester on Thursday. Meanwhile, Marwin Gonzalez (hamstring) could land on the injured list to open the second roster spot.
Doug Fernandes contributed to this report from Sarasota.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.