Patience does not come naturally to Chris Sale. But after a forced crash course in the discipline, an opportunity for which he yearned for more than two years is now in his hands.
On Friday, Sale — following his second COVID-19 infection of 2021 — returned from a stretch on the injured list with an outing that was both puzzling and promising. He flummoxed the Orioles for five innings, allowing one run on two hits in a 7-1 Red Sox victory at Fenway.
The outing represented the start of a season-ending stretch that could feature a lot of the lefthander. Thanks to three off days in the final two weeks of the season, the Sox have a chance to use Sale three times in their final 10 games, including on the final day of the regular season. The Sox are thrilled by the prospect.
“I’m real excited for that. I told Sale when he was going through his rehab process, you’re going to be that guy,” said Nate Eovaldi. “You’re going to be fresh, you’re going to be ready to go, and we’ll be able to rely on you even more than we already do. I know he missed all the competitiveness and the games. For him to be in this situation, we couldn’t ask for anything more.”
Sale, who disclosed that he is unvaccinated, said that he remained asymptomatic while quarantined. He tried to remain in shape by having a portable mound brought from Babson College to his backyard, where he at one point simulated a six-inning outing.
“I felt like I was making another rehab start with a new team. It was kind of weird not being around and [instead] doing all my baseball activity at the house,” said Sale.
Even with those efforts, Sale didn’t look like his vintage self on Friday against the Orioles. A pitcher who has generated whiffs like few others in MLB history proved largely incapable of missing bats, eliciting just four swings-and-misses from his 79 offerings. He struck out just one batter — tied for the fewest he’s had in his 238 career starts.
The fastball that typically anchors Sale’s outings was unavailable — a fact that became evident when Austin Hays blasted a 91 miles-per-hour meatball to the moon for a solo homer in the top of the second inning.
“My fastball wasn’t jumping out of my hand,” Sale said.
But the veteran adapted. He leaned heavily on his slider — using it 51 percent of the time, the second highest rate for any start of his career — as well as his changeup while judiciously incorporating his fastball. He was not the familiar overwhelming power pitcher but rather a craftsman who steered his pitches off the barrels of his opponents’ bats, eliciting nine groundball outs.
“His ability to pitch has always been there. He understands what he needs to do on a nightly basis to give us five, six innings and give us a chance to win. Tonight was the perfect example,” said manager Alex Cora. “The fastball today wasn’t acting the way it usually does. Him and Christian Vázquez, they went to plan B and started using the slider a little bit more, the changeup, a lot of offspeed pitches, and he did an amazing job.”
For the Red Sox, Sale’s six starts since he concluded his rehab from Tommy John surgery offer cause for optimism. The quality of his pitches has been inconsistent across outings, yet he’s been able to work with whatever he’s had to stifle opponents for a handful of innings at a time.
While he’s averaging a modest five innings per outing, he’s 4-0 with a 2.40 ERA and the Sox are 5-1 in his starts. His ability to return to the mound after being quarantined since the middle of last week and command well enough to lead the Sox to a win impressed his teammates.
“Chris Sale finds a new way to amaze me every time he takes the mound,” said Matt Barnes. “Sale was great tonight. Sale is always great.”
That view suggests a pitcher whom the Sox would feel comfortable using with the season on the line. After going nearly two full years without pitching, Sale has done enough to convince the Sox to trust him with their fate.
With off days on Sept. 20, Sept. 23, and Sept. 27, the Sox can gerrymander their rotation to rely on Sale, Nate Eovaldi, Eduardo Rodriguez, and Nick Pivetta for 12 of their remaining 13 games. That scenario would leave Sale in line to pitch in the final game of the regular season if the Sox needed a win to extend their season past 162 games.
What does that prospect mean?
“It’s everything, professionally. There’s nothing more that I want than to win a World Series,” said Sale. “[The playoffs are] a crapshoot, man. You’ve just got to get in. No one knows [what will happen] once those lights flick on and I think we’ve seen that throughout some years of, hey, maybe you just get in and you catch a hot streak and you look up and you’re lifting up a trophy so it’s all hands on deck. We’re all pulling from the same rope. We’ve all got the same vision and that’s playing, winning and getting to the postseason. So whatever that takes, it takes and that’s what we’ll do.”
Now that he has returned from quarantine, that is a pursuit to which Sale can again work to contribute.