SAN DIEGO — Manny Machado was placed on the injured list Friday, which is a shame because that means Chris Sale won’t be able to strike him out again on Saturday night.
Now a member of the San Diego Padres, the villainous Machado was all that stood between the Red Sox and a World Series championship in 2018 at Dodger Stadium.
Sale struck him out on four pitches, the last a devastating slider that dropped Machado to one knee as he swung and missed. It was a career-defining moment for Sale, more so then he ever could have imagined at the time.
Sale has not been selected to the All-Star Game or received even one Cy Young vote since that strikeout, a series of injuries having turned one of the best pitchers of his generation into an afterthought.
But that’s starting to change. Sale has allowed only five runs on 13 hits over 20⅓ innings in his last three starts and struck out 24 with two walks. His fastball has averaged 94.5 miles per hour and topped out at 98.5. His earned run average was 8.22 on April 24 and has since been chopped down to 5.40.
At 34, Sale isn’t going back in time. It’s more he’s showing his time isn’t up.
“Mechanically I’m getting to better spots when I need to,” Sale said Friday before the Sox opened their series against the Padres at Petco Park. “Before I was a little stiff and getting away from the things that made me successful. I feel like my routine between starts is better, too.”
Is this sustainable?
“I certainly hope so,” he said. “This game can get you there quick, but vice-versa, too. Sometimes you’re at the top of the mountain and you fall off. But you can go back up.”
Sale was cautioned by pitching coach Dave Bush and the medical staff that it would take time to make progress given he started only two games last season and threw 102 pitches.
“I appreciate them having that mindset. I obviously did not,” Sale said. “I’m hard-headed when it comes to stuff like that. I don’t see being a big leaguer as a process. Just be good, that’s all it is. But that was unrealistic.”
Sale was confident that he’d be able to throw close to 100 m.p.h. as he built up arm strength and refined his delivery. What he calls the “whippiness” in his arm is back.
The Sox have been careful with Sale. Six of his eight starts have come with at least one extra day of rest, and that will be the case again Saturday when he faces Joe Musgrove.
Until the end of his career, the goal will be quality, not quantity.
“I haven’t felt this good since 2019 before I blew out my elbow,” Sale said. “I had a start against Anaheim [at Fenway Park on Aug. 8 when he struck out 13 in eight scoreless innings] that I felt like I was picking up steam. Then that was it. It hasn’t been until lately I’m getting that feeling back.”
Not even the new pitch timer has been an issue.
“I enjoy it. I like it,” Sale said. “It’s like anything else — if you do it long enough, people will get used to it. I’ve always been a quick worker anyway.
“Different, yeah. But it’s been good for the game. You’re not taking any of the game away, you’re taking away guys tying their shoes and fixing their batting gloves.”
Through Thursday, the Sox were third-best in the majors in runs scored (248) and fourth-worst in runs allowed (232). Their pitching must improve to compete for a playoff spot, and having Sale back in All-Star form would be a huge step in that direction.
“Little by little, he’s getting close to who he is,” manager Alex Cora said. “He’s not there yet.”
Cora said he’ll know Sale is back to being his old self when his slider dives at the back foot of righthanded hitters. That pitch, which moves like it’s controlled by a joystick, is the one Machado chased.
“I want that feeling again,” Sale said. “I want to be that guy.”