The Boston Red Sox may ease Chris Sale back in by having him open games with an inning or two rather than give him a full starter’s workload.
Chris Sale is nearing a return to the Boston Red Sox but he may not be a starter when he takes the mound.
Fine, so the left-hander will technically start the first inning of his next game but his role may not be what we expect from a starting pitcher. The Red Sox may steal a page out of the Tampa Bay Rays’ book by using Sale as an opener.
"“He might become an ‘opener’ for one or two starts and he wants to make sure I call him the ‘opener,’ ” said Cora before Sunday’s series finale. “He felt good yesterday, he’s feeling good today. I’m thinking little by little things are trending in the right direction and hopefully he can be back sooner rather than later.”"
Using a designated closer for the ninth inning has been commonplace for decades. Reversing the strategy by having an opener pitch the first inning or two is an unorthodox approach. It has worked for a rebuilding Rays team thin on rotation depth. It’s not a strategy you would expect from the best team in baseball.
However, there may be a method to the madness. Sale has been sidelined by shoulder inflammation since August 12, his second trip to the DL with the same issue this season. He tossed five shutout innings against the Baltimore Orioles in his return from the first DL stint. Sale stuck out 12 but was limited to 77 pitches and went back on the shelf shortly after.
It would behoove the Red Sox to be cautious with their ace. Limiting Sale’s workload to prevent a repeat of last year’s late-season fade has been a priority under Cora’s leadership. That plan is more important now when he’s coming back from a sore shoulder, no matter how much the pitcher and team try to download the severity.
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Having Sale open for the first inning or two in his return gives him the opportunity to get some work with limited risk of aggravating his shoulder. The expanded roster in September leaves the Red Sox with no shortage of relievers to call on so there are no concerns about burning out the bullpen.
This certainly isn’t a long-term plan. The Red Sox need their ace to be a workhorse down the stretch and into the postseason. They also have to get him there with a healthy shoulder. The “opener” may be a role Sale only fills for one or two turns through the rotation before he’s unleashed to resume his regular workload.
Sale is expected to be activated during the upcoming homestand, possibly as early as next weekend against the Houston Astros. He will throw off a mound at some point over the next three days while the team is in Atlanta to face the Braves, after which a decision will be made.
Missing most of August hasn’t eliminated Sale from the Cy Young conversation. He’s 12-4 with a 1.97 ERA, 0.85 WHIP, and 219 strikeouts. The Red Sox will be thrilled to finally get their ace back, even if his initial appearance is a brief one.