WORCESTER — Over five innings of his rehab start with Triple-A Worcester on Saturday, Chris Sale labored. His fastball command was imprecise at the start of the game, forcing him to dial back his velocity from the mid-90s back to the low-90s in hopes of hitting his spots.
With that adjustment, he could not dominate the Buffalo lineup, instead navigating around hard contact that resulted in one run on five hits and a walk along with seven strikeouts against the Blue Jays’ Triple-A affiliate. In the fourth start of his rehab assignment, nearly two years removed from his last big league game, the effort needed by Sale to work through the longest start of his rehab tour (after one start in the Florida Complex League and two in Double-A Portland) was . . . perfect.
“I finally put in my first real day of work in two years. That felt good. Today felt normal,” said Sale, whose appearance prompted the first-ever full-capacity sellout crowd (9,508) at Polar Park. “It’s different knowing I’m only going to go two innings today or three innings today. Today was like, you’ve got to carry some load and you’ve got to figure out how to navigate this game.
“I was grinding against myself with my fastball command,” he added. “That’s no different than any other random start throughout the year.”
Sale threw 81 pitches, 52 for strikes, and got a dozen swings-and-misses — five on sliders, five on changeups, and two on fastballs. He topped out at 96 miles per hour but mostly worked at 91-93 m.p.h. in an effort to hit his spots.
Does he feel like his stuff was good enough to compete in the big leagues?
“Absolutely,” said Sale, who was credited with the victory — his first in an official game since August 8, 2019 — in the WooSox’s 4-2 win.
Over a two-inning span, he offered both validation for that notion and a reminder that there is no guarantee of a return to vintage form this season.
In the third, he struck out the side on 15 pitches, with Bisons players swinging and missing at six of his offerings. But in the fourth, he got hit hard, allowing his only run of the day on a pair of doubles.
The damage could have been greater, but WooSox centerfielder Tate Matheny robbed a would-be leadoff homer by Jays prospect Kevin Smith, leaping to bring a flyball back from beyond the fence in left-center. Sale joyously threw out his arms and then pointed to Matheny in celebration of the web gem.
OH MY TATE MATHENY pic.twitter.com/gbUqeFbFoP— Worcester Red Sox (@WooSox) July 31, 2021
Sale — who was paired with WooSox catcher Chris Herrmann for the day — closed the outing with a 1-2-3 fifth inning, getting a pair of flyouts and a groundout.
As much as he would have loved to overpower Buffalo (“Nothing beats being dominant, that’s for sure,” he said), he took satisfaction in how he adapted on the mound to what he had, on a day where he lost feel at different points for his fastball and slider.
“Those are all things I’ve had to battle with before,” said Sale. “I’m starting to get into more of a normal routine and more of fighting the same fight everyone else is fighting, instead of having an injured elbow, fighting back, rehabbing. I don’t feel that way. That’s big.”
Sale will make another start for the WooSox next week, traveling with the team to face the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre — showing unusual enthusiasm for a four-hour ride to get there.
“I’m having a blast. You can bet your [rear] I’m getting on that bus,” Sale said. “It’s going to be fantastic.”
Still, as much as Sale is enjoying the minor league setting, he’s excited that his time with Red Sox affiliates is nearing a conclusion. He does not know whether next week’s Triple-A start will be his last before a return to the big leagues, but the 32-year-old is eager to make his way back to the big leagues and assist his team’s push towards October.
“The pressure is there in these rehab games. Obviously it’s going to be more in the big leagues. But to have that now, you want this to be as close as it will be when I’m there,” said Sale. “I’m ramping up like it’s spring training but I’m not starting day one of the season. We’re in the middle of something special right now. We’re on the top, we’re leading the pack right now. I don’t have time to go up there and do this or that. I’ve got to pitch and I’ve got to pitch good. There’s a sense of urgency to it. I love that.”
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.