Red Sox ace Chris Sale returns to the mound with low expectations

Tuesday night, for the first time since last October, Chris Sale will take the mound for the Red Sox.

Facing the Tampa Bay Rays in a key battle amongst two teams fighting for American League Wild Card spots, Sale will look to build on his last outing in Triple-A Worcester, where he threw just 42 strikes on 72 pitches while walking five batters and striking out five.

He made a lasting impression in the Woo Sox’ tunnel, where he destroyed a TV out of frustration with his poor performance, but the Red Sox are hoping he can reign in that energy with a big start against the Rays.

They sure need him.

They’ve been without Nathan Eovaldi and Garrett Whitlock in the rotation since June 8. Michael Wacha and Rich Hill are also on the injured list with indefinite returns. Six of the last eight starts by Red Sox pitchers have been made by rookies.

If Sale can offer the Sox a glimpse of the vintage ace he once was, this team should be in business. But that might be a lot to ask given he’s been a shell of himself over the last three years, battling shoulder issues, undergoing Tommy John surgery and most recently suffering a rib fracture.

It’s been a tale of two careers for Sale thus far.

From the time he became a big league starter in 2012 through his last full season in 2018, he ranked third in ERA (2.91) behind only Clayton Kershaw (2.14) and Jacob deGrom (2.67).

He ranked second in strikeouts (1,678) behind only Max Scherzer (1,851).

And he was tied for third with 15 complete games.

But since the start of the 2019 season, when Dave Dombrowski signed Sale to a five-year, $145-million contract extension, Sale has been a non-factor.

He ranks 190th in innings pitched (190), 103rd in strikeouts (270), and 93rd in ERA (4.12) among those who have matched his innings in that span.

There’s been a big emphasis on his velocity, which has seen drastic fluctuation from mid-summer in 2018, when he was averaging 97-98 mph on his fastball and looking like a Cy Young Award contender, to early 2019, when he averaged 89 mph on his fastball in his second start of the season.

He was averaging 94 mph in his rehab starts, though command was a bigger issue. Sale continues to say that velocity isn’t too important with him, and he’s proven that while being effective with less heat. His ability to throw his slider effectively and for strikes is what makes him one of the best pitchers on the planet.

But he’s traditionally been a slow starter and a slow finisher, which makes his mid-summer return all the more interesting.

The 33-year-old historically has had his worst months in April (3.22 ERA), August (3.26) and September (3.77), while he usually does his best in May (2.69), June (2.56) and July (2.78).

WORCESTER, MA - JULY 6: Worcester Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale looks at catcher during his rehab start against the Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRiders July 6,2022 in WORCESTER, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Chris Christo/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
WORCESTER, MA – JULY 6: Worcester Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale looks at catcher during his rehab start against the Scranton/Wilkes Barre RailRiders July 6,2022 in WORCESTER, Massachusetts. (Staff Photo By Chris Christo/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

The last time Sale pitched in a big league was in Game 5 of the A.L. Championship Series against the Astros, when he looked great for five innings, but a walk and a Kyle Schwarber error put two men on for Yordan Alvarez, who hammered a two-run double that ended Sale’s night and sealed the Red Sox’ fate.

They lost the ALCS in six games.

Talking to reporters in Tampa on Monday, manager Alex Cora said that last year, Sale “wasn’t even nearly where he’s at arm-wise now. Now it’s far from the surgery and he should be OK. I know he’s excited and from my end, it makes sense that he’s here because I still remember that first inning in the playoffs last year. He came down and I talked to him in that tunnel. He was beat. He was frustrated. For him to come here now and pitch here, obviously friends and family around, it should be good.”

Sale hasn’t won a postseason start since Game 1 of the 2018 A.L. Division Series against the Yankees. It’s his only postseason win in seven starts.

At this point the Red Sox will likely be happy with his ability to show up and throw five or six solid innings. They’re running on fumes in the bullpen, continuously making roster moves to freshen up their arms, and have dug deep into their starting depth during this run of injuries.

Sale doesn’t have to be vintage Sale to make an impact. He just needs to stay healthy and throw strikes.

“I believe we can be more aggressive now compared to last year,” Cora told reporters. “Obviously (in his first start), probably 85 pitches, but I think we’ll be more aggressive. The fact that we’re thinking about him pitching on Sunday, that tells you a lot.”

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