Chris Sale pitches to minor leaguers, but it’s still an event
FORT MYERS, Fla. — The last time we saw Chris Sale on a mound pitching to real live hitters, he was blowing a pitch past Manny Machado (on bended knee) to close out the World Series while millions watched on television and thousands of citizens of Red Sox Nation cheered from the upper deck on the first-base side of Dodger Stadium.
Monday morning was a little different, as Sale trotted out to the mound on back field No. 4 (Eddie Popowski Field) in front of a hundred pasty snowbirds, slovenly sportswriters, one NESN camera, and a good portion of the Red Sox baseball brass gathered behind the home plate screen.
In presidential parlance, it was probably the largest crowd ever to attend a mid-March simulated game — Dice-K devotees might argue — but it was not the clinching game of the World Series.
“I felt good,’’ Sale said after throwing 45 pitches (33 strikes) to a cast of unknown Sox minor leaguers. “It was nice to come in and do some work and finally get in somewhat of a game atmosphere and crank on it a little bit.’’
Sale struck out five, hit one, walked one, and allowed three hits and one run in his three-inning outing. Nothing was taken lightly for his debut. Baseball ops boss Dave Dombrowski had his nose pressed against the screen like the dad of a high school junior who’s hoping to hear from a Division 1 school.
Dombrowski was flanked by Sox manager Alex Cora, pitching coach Dana LeVangie, assistant general manager Eddie Romero, executive vice president Brian O’Halloran, and Hall of Fame consultant Tony La Russa. JetBlue security made sure nobody bothered the Sox brain trust.
Very un-spring-training-like. This felt more like Fort Foxborough.
Throwing to Single A catcher Roldani Baldwin, Sale threw 15 pitches in each inning. He hit the first batter he faced (in the foot) with an off-speed pitch on a 1-and-2 count (“I almost threw a slider behind him,” said Sale). After a strikeout and a single, he struck out a kid on three pitches.
With two on and two out, Sale got Marino Jose Campana to swing at a first pitch, and then the inning was called off because Sale was at the pitch limit. Fans applauded as he came off the field. Such is the nature of the simulated game.
“This was part of the process, to be in a controlled environment and being able to roll innings and really just focus on the work that needs to be done with the building-up process,’’ said Sale. “It was nice to be back out there and let a couple go.’’
Young Mr. Campana was allowed to bat again with a fresh count at the start of the second inning. He fouled off six consecutive Sale offerings before swinging and missing. It might be something to write home about to the folks in Santo Domingo.
Sale got touched up a bit in the third. After a strikeout and a long fly out, he gave up a single to center, walked a lefty batter on four pitches, then surrendered an RBI double to right on his last pitch of the day.
“I feel great,’’ he said. “Obviously we’re taking it a little slower, working out some kinks in my delivery and finding my release point. There’s definitely a process going on right now. We bought into it and we’re going to keep it going right until [the season opener] March 28.”
Sale topped out at 93 m.p.h. on the gun, but was cagey when asked about it.
Did they tell you what you hit on the gun?
“Yeah, they did,’’ he said.
What were you hitting?
“Don’t worry about all that. I’ve got to keep something from you guys to make it fun.’’
Sale traditionally has fizzled at the ends of seasons and was rarely used after mid-August last year because of shoulder issues. He wound up pitching only 158 innings and managed to get to the mound for only 15⅓ postseason innings in the team’s 14 playoff games.
If the Sox don’t extend his contract, he will be a 30-year-old free agent at the end of the 2019 season. Three weeks ago, Sox owner John Henry went to great lengths to say that Sale’s shoulder problems are minor, but the Sox are still handling him like a Faberge egg.
“We’ve been full go since I started throwing in late November,’’ Sale insisted. “It’s been a non-issue. We knew what it was before, and we knew what we were dealing with. Just need some time to take off, and got the time to take off and now we’re rolling again.
“This was a full-circle offseason for me. All those things are the buildup to where we are now and hopefully will get us over the hump throughout the year and towards the end of the year.’’
Sale is scheduled to pitch three more times before Opening Day. His next outing could be Sunday at JetBlue against the Braves, unless the Sox keep him in simulated games.
“I just know in five days I’ll be pitching against somebody,’’ he said. “I know once I step on a mound in a regular-season game, it’s going to be the same.
“I don’t want to sound like an old man, but I’ve done this a few times, so once the lights flick on, I know what I’m capable of. It’s go time then.’’