FORT MYERS, Fla. — Chris Sale lived up to one part of his reputation Sunday, when his frankness, accountability and honesty during a half-hour spring training interview session reminded Red Sox fans why they love him so much. Sale pulled no punches in discussing baseball’s latest black eye, exposing the sign-stealing scandal emanating out of Houston for the existential threat to the game that it is.
But the 30-year-old pitcher lived up to another part of his reputation too, evidenced by his absence from the early spring workouts with the rest of the Red Sox pitching staff. This time, it’s pneumonia that puts Sale’s availability at the forefront of his baseball conversation, reminding us of the only black mark on a resume otherwise filled with dominance on the mound and stand-up greatness off it, that he’s still the guy who’s been on the shelf with elbow trouble since last August, the one who was also pulled from his final start in 2018 over lingering shoulder soreness, the night the Sox clinched the World Series.
Fiery dugout speeches and 10-strikeout games are great, and Sale is the occasional master of both. But this year, more than ever, the Sox need him to be the consistent pitching ace they are paying him to be. You know it, we know it.
He knows it.
“I’m very confident I can be that,” he said. “I feel good. I feel really good. I feel confident that when this thing starts I’ll be ready for it and back to doing what’s expected of me. Certainly there’s an expectation when I step on the mound and I’m ready to get back to that.”
He’s not exactly off to a rousing start. After a 6-11, 4.40 ERA in 2019 in which he was shut down in August and visited grim reaper, Dr. James Andrews, due to his elbow issues, Sale had the bad luck to fall ill before the start of spring. He’s finally back at work after losing two weeks and almost seven pounds to the debilitating condition, but remains on his own program and, as manager Ron Roenicke revealed this weekend, may not be ready for Opening Day.
This is not exactly what Sox fans needed to hear after Mookie Betts and David Price were salary-dumped to the Dodgers in exchange for a couple of A-ball players and a baggage-heavy outfielder who turned out to have a stress fracture in his back.
This is not what a rotation that also said goodbye to former Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello needs to hold up its end of the 2020 equation that demands winning while rebuilding. This is not what the front office had in mind when it handed Sale a five-year, $145 contract million extension prior to last season that goes into effect this season. Formergeneral manager Dave Dombrowski paid for that decision (and a few other spend-happy ones) with his job, and while replacement GM Chaim Bloom is here to tighten John Henry’s purse strings, he needs a dividend on the Sale investment.
“You can’t [overstate his importance],” Roenicke said. “He’s one of the best pitchers in the game. When he has a little bit of a setback, yeah, you pay attention to it. We know he’s going to get ready when we work it out to what that schedule is, but yeah, he’s huge to what we do and our rotation.”
Yet here Sale has been, idle for the longest stretch of his professional life, nursing back to health a left elbow that seemed destined for the surgeon’s knife, all the while letting the rest of his lanky 6-foot-6-inch frame rest up too. There he was on his living room couch or in his Florida bedroom, watching the Red Sox on television while he and his wife tended to their three sons, the youngest of whom is now three months old, processing the strangeness of being separated from his teammates. Here he was as the calendar flipped over to the new year, finally able to leave the house to throw for what he said was six or seven times off a mound, rounding the corner toward spring training with a new, clearer vision of what was to come.
And then there he was at the doctor’s office, being told the symptoms that wouldn’t go away were pneumonia, being forced to reduce those throwing efforts to 60 or 70 tosses against a home rebounder, stuck in neutral yet again. As much as he insisted Sunday that all is well physically, that Andrews assured him his elbow is fine and that he was feeling as good as he ever had in those six to seven throwing sessions, this test is far from over. The Sox cannot know what he will deliver until he gets back on the mound.
His recent history is trending the wrong way: In three seasons in Boston, Sale has gone from 17-6 to 12-4 to 6-11. His innings have dwindled from 214⅓ to 158 to 141⅓ . He started last season 0-5 with a 6.30 ERA in April after the Sox babied him in spring training. Then came the August shutdown. And then? Pneumonia.
“I was like, ‘what? That’s inconvenient,’ ” Sale said. “But what are you going to do? Deal with it and move on. I took some medicine, I’m starting to move around a little bit and get my stamina back up. I’m over the hump now, the worst of it’s behind me, so back to doing baseball stuff.”
Sale, already built like a sheet of paper, said he’s been to a favorite barbecue place for four straight days, filling up on ribs in the hopes of putting meat back on his own bones.
“Got down to fightin’ weight,” he laughed. “It’ll come back. I’m not worried about that.”
Fans have a right to be concerned though. They love Sale the stand-up guy. They just want to see more of Sale, the on-the-mound force. That’s what the Red Sox need.