FORT MYERS, Fla. — As Chris Sale arrived in the Red Sox clubhouse one spring training morning, he turned to teammate Nick Pivetta, who appeared to be in a hurry. What, he wondered, was Pivetta rushing to do?
“I gotta go throw,” Pivetta told him.
Sale sank at the obviousness of the response.
“In that moment, right there, I was like, ‘Oh [expletive].’ I had forgotten I’m supposed to be throwing a baseball — that’s part of my job — because I’ve just been coming here and been a patient,” Sale reflected over the weekend. “This is three springs in a row I’m not even a baseball player.
“I show up, I do my rehab stuff, I go do the workout that I can do, do my shoulder program.”
Sale has not thrown a baseball since Feb. 24, when he suffered a stress fracture in his right ribcage during a live batting practice session against players from Florida Gulf Coast University, Sale’s alma mater.
In the nearly six weeks since, his rib has healed considerably, to the point where he no longer feels broken by sneezing. An MRI last week confirmed that the bone is healing but he has not yet been cleared to start throwing.
The 33-year-old lefthander expected that approval to come in the relatively near future, but with the need to rebuild his arm strength before progressing to bullpen sessions, then live batting practice, then rehab games, his timetable gained a measure of clarity Monday.
The Red Sox, needing to add a 40-man roster spot for reliever Tyler Danish, placed Sale on the 60-day injured list. He will not be available to pitch until June 6 at the earliest.
The prolonged absence weighs on Sale. He tore his ulnar collateral ligament in the spring of 2020 and missed all of that COVID-shortened season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. That process, coupled with a neck injury, limited him to nine starts in 2021. Now, he will miss at least a dozen starts to open the 2022 campaign.
All of this is occurring against the backdrop of a five-year, $145 million extension Sale signed in the spring of 2019. After years in which his perennial Cy Young-caliber performances made him one of the foremost bargains in baseball, he has offered extremely limited return on his current contract.
He does not hide from that reality in assessing his contributions to the Red Sox, who acquired him from the White Sox in exchange for a four-prospect package anchored by Yoán Moncada and Michael Kopech in December 2016.
“I’m in a [expletive] situation. There’s just no way around that,” he said. “I’m hurt. And I’m supposed to not be hurt. I’m supposed to be a very big contributing factor to this team.
“I’ve not done my job for some freakin’ time now. Think about it. I had one full year in ‘17. Good year. Three quarters of a year in ‘18, won the World Series — we’ll call that one a great year. In ‘19, had the worst year of my career, ended up getting hurt. In ‘20, COVID, Tommy John. In ‘21, Tommy John, pitched for a quarter of the year and the playoffs. Serviceable at best, I’ll call that. And then now.
“So I’ve been here for six years, I’ve given these people one full [expletive] year. You kidding me? I wouldn’t like me, either.”
On the one hand, Sale is self-flagellating. On the other, he realizes the need to accept his circumstances and move forward.
At one point during the Tommy John rehab, Sale was swallowed by negativity, resenting that he could not pitch. That outlook, he now recognizes, made his rehab more difficult, less productive. So as frustrated as he is, he tries to resist the gravity of an emotional black hole.
“[Negativity] crushed me through the Tommy John stuff,” he said. “That was bad. I was not in a good spot there.
“This is not close to that. But it’s still eerily the same feeling that I’m not pulling my weight. But, could be worse. I know that’s something that sounds like a copout from fans looking at me, but it’s the truth. That’s what I have to hold onto right now.
“Because if I think that I’m in the worst position in the world, I’m going to get in that mind-set, I’m going to be a bad teammate, I’m going to feel sorry for myself, I’m not going to get the work done, so on and so forth.
“And I’m almost positive there’s bigger atrocities in the world than a cracked rib for a major league baseball player. But it’s a fine line that I deal with because the competitor in me won’t allow that [negativity] to leave. But the person in me has to know, ‘OK, this is not a stop-and-feel-sorry-for-yourself situation.’ ”
Sale tries to take some measure of reassurance from how he’d been throwing before the injury. He spent the offseason building arm strength to its pre-injury peaks, and says that his velocity in bullpen sessions in January was higher than it had been when he came to the Sox in 2017. He saw a glimpse of being able to throw not like a post-rehab pitcher who worked in the low to mid 90s, but like the force that allowed him to dominate before 2019.
“I felt the strength in my shoulder and my elbow and my back,” said Sale. “So at least I know how to get to those points. I know what I need going forward.”
That gives Sale hope that he can emerge as a significant contributor whenever he is ready to rejoin the Red Sox. If his stuff is better this year than it was last season, and if he is available for more of the season than he was in 2021 (when he went 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA in nine starts after a mid-August return), then perhaps there is a path out of the disappointment of a third straight spring as a non-pitching patient.
“This is not what I signed up for,” he said. “It just sucks that it’s all happening right now, because we have a good team. But what are you going to do? What are you going to do? You roll with the punches.”
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