How do you travel through the void of the unknown?
For Chris Sale and the Red Sox, nothing — save for the duration of his five-year contract — is guaranteed. The succession of injuries that has arrived like so many buzzers in a game of Operation has made the lefthander’s appearances on the mound infrequent over the last four years.
The certainty of dominance that once greeted his starts over seven straight years of All-Star appearances and top-six Cy Young finishes from 2012-18 has been replaced by questions marks about which version of the pitcher will take the mound and whether he will remain intact after pitching.
Sale understands all of that. And Friday night, he offered a dazzling response to that uncertainty.
In a 5-2 Red Sox victory over the Tigers at Fenway Park, Sale — limited to 58 pitches after making just two rehab starts in his return from a stress fracture in his left shoulder — delivered 4⅔ perfect innings before the Tigers finally got to him for a solo homer and a hit batter that ended his night. (The runner came around to score, resulting in a final line of two earned runs.)
He featured an explosive 93-96 m.p.h. fastball, a wicked slider that at one point brought Tigers catcher Jake Rogers to his knees on a swing and miss, as well as sinkers and changeups to stretch the zone. He struck out seven, walked none, and damned the torpedoes.
“Tomorrow’s not guaranteed. I’m not saving anything for tomorrow because I don’t know if it’s coming,” Sale said. “When I’m out there, I’m not thinking about anything other than competing and dominating. … That feeling will never get old.”
For the Sox, Sale’s nothing-held-back performance created an undeniable sense of possibility. In a rotation spot that had been occupied by a succession of openers, Sale offered a glimpse of a stabilizing rotation force — the pitcher who had looked dominant in May (2.25 ERA, 31 percent strikeout rate) before slumping off the mound June 1 with a fissure in his shoulder.
Given the length of his layoff, the performance was remarkable — and significant for a team trying to reassert itself in the playoff hunt.
“He’s going to keep getting better and getting more innings and he’s going to be part of this,” manager Alex Cora said prior to the game. “For us to play in October, we need everybody to contribute. For him to come out here today and be healthy and compete with us, it means a lot to the group.”
Cora said Sale appears stronger now than he was prior to his injury, and the lefthander has reassured his manager that he’ll be fine moving forward. The Sox have him slated to take the mound again Thursday in Washington against the Nationals.
And yet, as impressive as Sale was, as much as he’s tried to assure the Sox he’ll be fine, it’s no longer possible to watch him overpower another team and simply take for granted what he might contribute moving forward. Everyone, even opponents, savors the glimpses of what Tigers manager A.J. Hinch described as “vintage Sale,” while doing so with some trepidation.
“We want to beat him,” Hinch said. “But in the big picture, Chris Sale is an important figure in baseball. He’s a star. He’s a unique pitcher — his size, his angles, the stuff that he’s brought, the success that he’s had, All-Star appearances, Cy Young stuff. Everything about Chris Sale is worth it for everybody to pay attention to.
“So, watching him evolve because of injury is sad, just because, I don’t want anybody to have to go through those injuries. I’m rooting for him from a baseball fan’s standpoint, because he’s done it at the highest level in the most intense environment and on the biggest stage. Guys like that deserve a lot of support.”
The Sox will attempt to provide just that.
“I don’t want to put the weight on his shoulders,” Cora said, a sentence unintentionally loaded with meaning.
Cora said the team will remain cautious in its usage of Sale, protecting him in any way necessary, whether through extra rest or pitch count limits. It was a message Cora reiterated to Sale when he removed him from the game — one out from being eligible for a win — and letting the 34-year-old depart to a thunderous ovation from the Fenway Park crowd of 32,647.
“In a nutshell, [Cora said] keep your eye on the big picture,” Sale said.
But what is that picture? Based on Friday, it’s that Sale remains a pitcher capable of making a significant impact whenever he is on the mound.
For now, for a team that has been scrambling to piece together its innings, the team will happily accept whatever it can get from a pitcher whose return made its staff look whole again — while hoping that tomorrow does not offer any unwelcome reversals.