FORT MYERS, Fla. — Live batting practice, in which a pitcher re-acclimates to throwing with an opposing hitter taking swings, is usually an unexceptional part of a spring progression. But for Chris Sale on Sunday, the 15 pitches he threw to a pair of teammates represented a landmark.
After all, exactly 200 days had elapsed between the last time Sale took the mound against hitters in a game against Cleveland last August 13 and Sunday’s effort against Josh Ockimey and Jantzen Witte. Perhaps it was that duration of more than half a year that crossed the lefthander’s mind as he emerged from the clubhouse on Sunday morning to start his preparations for the day.
“Now we go,” he smiled.
Sale went through a normal pre-outing progression, throwing long toss and then warming up on a bullpen mound before heading to Field 1. The significance of the step was marked by the fact that all of the Red Sox pitchers in camp went out to bear witness to the 15 pitches.
The outing concluded with Ockimey, a lefthanded hitter, letting loose on a fastball and driving it out to left.
“Guess we’ll end on that one,” Sale said to laughter from his teammates.
But that single swing was insignificant compared to what preceded it, with Sale throwing his full arsenal – fastballs, sliders, and changeups – to both righthanded and lefthanded hitters. It was also noteworthy that even in the relaxed setting of the back fields at Fenway South, he worked effortlessly in the 90s — a contrast to his first Grapefruit League start last spring, when Sale worked largely in the high-80s.
This was a glimpse of Sale working toward being, well, himself.
“I’ve been looking forward to catching him ever since I signed here so it was good to get back here and see him firsthand and everything looked really good,” said catcher Kevin Plawecki. “Everything looked good to me, coming in good, slider looked great, changeup looked good, he had good life to his fastball, so all in all, I think it went pretty well.”
Sale’s arm is healthy — a notable contrast with how he finished each of the last two seasons, including a 2019 campaign cut short in mid-August by inflammation in his prized left elbow. And the early evidence from his work in spring training suggests that he is stronger than he was a year ago at this time.
Sale, of course, will begin the season on the injured list, and miss at least the first two turns of the rotation. But that status is a product not of any arm woes but instead due to the fact that he was sidelined at the start of camp by pneumonia.
And unlike a year ago, when the Sox let Sale take the mound on Opening Day after just two Grapefruit League starts, the team is committed to having the 30-year-old — coming off a career-worst 6-11 season with a 4.40 ERA — get a full six-start buildup for the 2020 campaign.
“There were a lot of different opinions about what the smart thing to do was,” said pitching coach Dave Bush. “But ultimately we decided given the arm issues [Sale] had last year and valuing him making 30 starts this year as opposed to risking the rest of the year for two at the beginning of the year, that it was a smarter decision all the way around to make sure he got a full buildup and he was healthy.”
That commitment is in place not just for Sale but for all of the Red Sox starters. Whereas the team limited the workloads of all of its starters except Eduardo Rodriguez as a concession to the full month of postseason games in 2018, this year, the Sox have been determined to give their pitchers a more traditional spring training innings load.
That’s in part due to an unwanted opportunity — the Sox having been idle last October — and partly based on the recognition that the Red Sox won’t have a chance to fill their pitchers’ tanks if they start the year with any depletion. The team is scheduled to have games on eight straight days to open the year, with 20 contests in the first 21 days of the season.
“We don’t have many off-days early on, so our starters need to be ready to go every five days almost the whole first month of the year,” said Bush. “It was even more important to make sure our guys are ready to go every five days when the season starts.”
Sale won’t be ready to do that out of the chute — but barring a setback, he won’t be far behind. Sunday marked an important marker of possibility for the pitcher as he embarked on a competitive routine.
Sale is now scheduled to throw another live batting practice session on Thursday — this time, with two 15-pitch intervals — as a potential prelude to the start of his six-game preparation for a mid-April activation. The Red Sox are optimistic that when he is ready to pitch in big league games, he won’t merely be capable of logging innings but will instead be in position to dominate across them.
“He feels healthy. All the issues he had last year are behind him at this point. The buildup is the same as it would be for any other pitcher,” said Bush. “Other than being delayed from being sick, his progression is on track and on time with where I’d expect it to be. That will allow him when he’s ready to go into the season without any restrictions. He can pitch and be the guy he wants to be.”