PORTLAND, Maine — Chris Sale took a promising step Thursday evening at Hadlock Field.
Initially scheduled to pitch three innings in his rehab start with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, the Red Sox ace got in an extra three outs. Thanks to an efficient pitch count, Sale tossed four innings, allowing four hits, one run, no walks while racking up seven strikeouts in a 15-4 win over the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, the Double-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays.
“I just got done having a freaking blast going out there and competing,” Sale said. “The feeling that I get out there, I can’t replicate, and I miss it. I enjoyed how I felt out there. It’s so much a part of who I am and it’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Nearly a year after making a pair of rehab starts for the Sea Dogs in a comeback from Tommy John surgery, Sale again suited up for the Red Sox Double-A affiliate. This time on the mend from a stress fracture in his right rib cage, Sale is in a different spot.
“I feel like last year when I was here I was searching for some stuff,” Sale said. “Now I feel like I’m sharpening the tools.”
Sale, 33, has started the last three consecutive seasons on the injured list. He missed the entirety of the truncated 2020 season recovering from Tommy John, and made just 11 starts, including two in the playoffs, in 2021.
The Red Sox ace lefthander began this year on the 60-day injured list due to the stress fracture sustained during a live batting practice session with Florida Gulf Coast University players during MLB’s lockout in late February.
Once he was cleared to throw again, the 6-foot-6-inch, 183-pound Sale suffered a setback — deemed a “non-baseball medical issue that is personal” — before starting his official minor league rehabilitation assignment.
Sale took deliberate steps on his path back, pitching with the Florida Complex League affiliate earlier this month. He threw one inning in his season debut June 20 and 2⅔ innings June 25. On his regular rest a few levels higher, clad in the Sea Dogs home white threads with a block No. 3 instead of his usual No. 41, Sale greeted a sellout crowd of 7,368 with a 95 mile per hour fastball, inside for a ball.
“It’s awesome to see him here,” said Joel Thornton, 17, of Jay, Maine. “Even though it’s not a Red Sox game, it’s a time to see him on his way back to Boston.”
Sale cruised through the top of the first inning, striking out the leadoff hitter, and inducing a flyout and a groundout on 10 pitches (six strikes). In the second, Sale picked up three strikeouts, all swinging, and allowed a hit sandwiched between the first and second strikeout. After inducing one swing-and-miss in the first inning, Sale got seven swings-and-misses in the second.
The third inning came with some challenges. Sale allowed an infield hit, then a run-scoring double after a misplay by left fielder Tyreque Reed.
Sale then bounced back by inducing a ground ball and a flyout. Sea Dogs right fielder Wil Dalton gunned down New Hampshire’s Chris Bec at home to escape the inning.
“[Sale] is definitely a top-tier pitcher,” said Fisher Cats third baseman Trevor Schwecke, who singled off Sale but also struck out against him. “I got something to hit, but his stuff was really good.”
Sale looked sharp in the fourth, getting a strikeout, allowing a single, then striking out two more Fisher Cats to end his evening. Sale tossed 36 of his 52 pitches for strikes. His fastball sat between 94-95 miles per hour, topping out at 96. Sale threw his slider in the high 70s/low 80s and a mid-80s changeup.
“Just typical Sale,” said Sea Dogs catcher Elih Marrero. “It was an awesome experience.”
After Wednesday night’s 6-5 win over the Blue Jays in 10 innings, Red Sox manager Alex Cora suggested more players would be vaccinated against COVID-19 when the Red Sox return to play at Toronto in September. Outfielder Jarren Duran and closer Tanner Houck were unavailable to play due to their vaccination status. Sale, who indicated during spring training he was unvaccinated, declined to address the matter.
“I mean, I just had a lot of fun. Let’s not ruin that, all right?” he said. “I’m enjoying this process. I appreciate being where I’m at and what I’m doing. Today’s today. Tomorrow’s going to come, and we’ll figure all that [expletive] out then, man.”
Cora previously said the seven-time MLB All-Star is expected to make a five-inning minor league start before he makes his season debut. Sale did not say what was next for him.
“Man, if they told me that I was starting in five days from now, I wouldn’t flinch,” he said. “But my hands are off the wheel. I’m just waiting on a phone call.”