The Red Sox opted not to employ Chris Sale as their Opening Day starter, but in Game 2, they’ll turn to him to be their stopper.
Sale was a spectator for Thursday’s 10-9 loss to the Orioles. Though he hurried from the clubhouse to meet with family in the wake of the defeat, he had a succinct message on the way out of Fenway Park.
“Tell everyone that I love them,” the lefthander said after receiving a sizable ovation in pregame ceremonies, “and that I’ll be ready.”
In many ways, Sale’s pronouncement of his readiness for the start of the 2023 season contained multitudes.
After all, Sale hadn’t been in a position to take the ball at the start of a season since 2019. He missed all of 2020 and most of 2021 while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He didn’t throw a single pitch in a game at Fenway in 2022 owing to a succession of unusual injuries: a stress fracture in his rib cage to start the year, a broken pinkie in his second start in July, a broken wrist suffered in a bicycle accident in August.
So the simple fact that he is healthy and ready to take the mound after a full spring training buildup represents a significant departure.
“This was the first spring training where he’s actually pitched for me,” said fourth-year Sox pitching coach Dave Bush. “We laughed about it in the spring, but it’s been that long since he started here healthy.”
Manager Alex Cora likewise noted that this was the first time he’d seen Sale throwing hard in spring training. Sale came out hot in his first spring with the Red Sox in 2017, but that was when John Farrell was the manager.
In Cora’s first year in 2018, the Sox wanted Sale to build slowly into his velocity, and he worked mostly in the high 80s and low 90s. In 2019, coming off a shoulder issue late in the season, he built up even more deliberately, and was working only in the mid to high 80s throughout the spring.
This spring was different, in a way that offered the Sox reason for optimism. Sale comfortably worked at 92-94 miles per hour, regularly topping out at 95-96 throughout the spring schedule.
“Velocity-wise, he’s in a better spot, which is interesting,” said Cora.
Perhaps more importantly, there were occasions when Sale threw his four-seamer up in the strike zone and the pitch exploded at the plate, hopping over bats. That was significant, as Sale didn’t have a swing-and-miss fastball during his brief time on the mound in 2022, having gotten whiffs on a career-low 5.6 percent of the 36 that he threw.
“I wasn’t getting a whole lot of swings and misses on fastballs [last year],” Sale said in spring training. “If I’m going to be successful, that’s something that’s just going to have to happen. And that’s something that I’ve been able to do [this spring] and I’ve just got to keep carrying that on.”
What kind of pitcher can Sale be? That’s impossible to say. There’s not a huge history of once-elite pitchers missing the better part of three full years then coming back as rotation mainstays.
Red Sox Opening Day starter Corey Kluber is one example of such a pitcher, as he made 31 starts in 2022 after missing most of the prior three seasons with a variety of injuries. But Kluber had to adjust his between-starts routine, and saw his velocity plummet in his return.
This spring, Sale not only proved able to make all of his starts, but to tolerate a full between-starts workload.
“Looking at it this year with how he’s felt, how he’s responded, his side days, all of that is in a good place,” said Bush. “As he went through spring, he felt healthy, the ball was coming out well, and we’re very happy with where he’s at.”
In all likelihood, if the Red Sox are to defy projections and emerge as contenders, they’ll need Sale to return not merely as a pitcher capable of taking the ball every five days but as one who is capable of dominance.
He was arguably as good as any pitcher in baseball last decade, someone who reeled off seven straight All-Star seasons and top-six finishes in AL Cy Young voting from 2012-18. There were brief reminders of that elite capability across his 11 starts in 2021 and 2022, but of course, nothing that proved enduring.
Is it possible for a pitcher who celebrated his 34th birthday Thursday to turn back the clock?
“He said [his body] is 34 and [his arm] is 31 because he hasn’t pitched in three years,” said Cora. “I’ll take his word.”
And Sale’s word right now is that he is healthy and ready — something that is true at the start of a season for the first time this decade.
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