WORCESTER — Chris Sale’s fourth and perhaps final rehab start did not go according to script.
While the lefthander showed top-shelf stuff — headlined by a fastball that topped out at 97 miles per hour — he struggled badly with his command, walking five batters and requiring 72 pitches over 3⅔ innings and proving unable to lock in his mechanics. He allowed one run on three hits (all soft singles) over his outing with five strikeouts, but the walks — “I’ve gone months without walking five guys,” Sale noted — were the defining element of his performance.
Asked to assess the outing, Sale sputtered.
“Pfffff. Not good,” he said. “I was just out there fishing today … Nothing to hang your hat on, that’s for sure.”
Yet the 33-year-old emerged from the start with the WooSox convinced his next appearance can be in the big leagues.
“I’m very ready,” Sale said. “I know today was a little bit of a hiccup but it’s nothing that can’t be ironed out … I just want to be a part of it. I want to get back to doing my job and pulling my weight.”
The lefthander made a statement with his first pitch of the outing, firing a 97-miles-per-hour fastball past Scranton/Wilkes-Barre leadoff man Tim Locastro for a swing and miss. He then largely settled at 93-96 m.p.h. while mixing in a mid-80s changeup and high-70s slider.
Sale suggested his raw stuff was excellent, offering plenty of promise. His stuff, said an evaluator, was vastly improved over a year ago when he was returning from Tommy John surgery.
“You saw good stuff, and he got through it healthy,” said WooSox manager Chad Tracy.
However, the veteran proved incapable of making the necessary adjustments to harness his mix in the strike zone. Sale walked a pair of batters in the first and one more in each of his next three innings of work.
Most notably, after he permitted all three of his hits in the fourth inning (two infield singles and one soft opposite-field single) he issued a bases-loaded free pass to No. 9 hitter David Freitas to force in a run in the fourth.
Sale — whose 26-pitch fourth inning elevated his pitch count well past his anticipated limit of 65 — was pulled after the walk. The lefthander retreated directly from the mound to the WooSox clubhouse, from which there were audible thuds of a pitcher taking out his frustrations on the interior of his workplace. Asked to describe his thoughts as he exited, Sale offered a four-letter word.
The lefthander threw 42 of 72 pitches (58 percent) for strikes. His fastball averaged 94 m.p.h. Of his 14 swings and misses, six came on fastballs, five on sliders, and three on changeups — but he lost command at times of all three offerings. Sale attributed his control struggles to a delivery that veered too far toward first base — an issue he believes will be easily correctable.
“It’s nothing that can’t be cleaned up in this next week [with] a couple bullpen sessions,” said Sale. “This doesn’t really set me back.”
While Sale believes the outing should not slow his return — “A blip on the radar … an outlier,” he suggested — it remains to be seen whether Sox officials will agree. Particularly given how little he’s pitched over the last four years, the organization might conclude he needs more time to re-establish his delivery before jumping back into the highest level of competition.
Even so, it is clear Sale isn’t far from his long-anticipated return, most likely before the All-Star break.
Sale — sidelined for all of 2020 and the first three-quarters of 2021 by Tommy John surgery — missed his third straight Opening Day as a result of a stress fracture in his right ribcage he suffered in late February. His return was slowed further by what he and the team have characterized as a personal medical issue.
Once he did return to the mound, Sale moved relatively quickly from the Florida Complex League (two starts) to an outing last week for Double A Portland leading into Wednesday’s outing. Now, the Sox and Sale will decide whether his next appearance will be in the minors or if he’s ready to jump back on the mound to pitch against the Rays in Tampa Bay.
Though he declined to say if he could already start to think ahead to a start in Tampa Bay next week, Sale made clear his perspective about where he thinks he can and should make his next start.
“This is sharpening the sword, not rebuilding it,” he said in comparing this year’s rehab from the rib injury to last year’s from Tommy John. “If I get back to Boston, I know what I’m capable of doing.”
Matthew J. Lee of the Globe staff contributed to this report.