Red Sox ace Chris Sale can bounce back from injury without surgery

BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - MAY 08: Starting pitcher Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox works the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 08, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
BALTIMORE, MARYLAND - MAY 08: Starting pitcher Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox works the third inning against the Baltimore Orioles at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on May 08, 2019 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale avoided surgery on his ailing elbow and there’s precedence that shows he can bounce back strong with rest and rehab.

Chris Sale is perhaps the biggest question mark facing the Boston Red Sox entering next season. He’s coming off the worst year of his career which was cut short by an elbow injury that ended his season in August.

While the lefty has been given the green light to begin his offseason throwing program, we’ll be holding our collective breaths until we see Sale back on the mound. Not the limited version we saw for prolonged rough patches last season. We need the vintage Sale who only appeared for brief stretches.

Sale struggled out of the gate following an abbreviated spring training. The Red Sox intended to give their starters extra rest last spring in order to preserve their arms for another postseason run but the plan backfired when those pitchers were woefully unprepared for the first few turns through the rotation.

His velocity was down early in the season but the light exhibition schedule is to blame for that.. Sale’s strikeout rate remained among the elite but his command was shaky and hitters were making harder contact. It took time to ramp up his velocity but he eventually started lighting up the radar gun.

The return to form didn’t last long before his elbow started barking. Sale hit the injured list in what was initially expected to be a fairly precautionary move but the status of his elbow has since become a source for controversy.

A visit to Dr. James Andrews led to panic that the lefty was heading for the dreaded Tommy John surgery. Instead, the doctor prescribed rest and rehabilitation. The Red Sox insist that Sale could have returned last season if they were in the hunt for a playoff spot but as their chances dwindled there was little reason to push him back to the mound.

Sale has claimed that he doesn’t have a tear in his elbow ligament but there’s been some speculation that he’s been hiding a serious injury. ESPN’s Buster Olney suggested that while Sale may not have been forthcoming about his injury, there’s reason for optimism that he can bounce back next season.

"“Sale has said he doesn’t have a tear in his elbow ligament, but keep in mind: Players aren’t required to disclose every piece of their medical information (nor should they be), and we aren’t required to believe exactly what they say,” writes Olney. “If he is, in fact, working his way back from a tear, then both Masahiro Tanaka and David Price have demonstrated that a bounce-back from that sort of injury is possible.”"

Tanaka’s brilliant rookie campaign was interrupted by an elbow injury that many assumed would require Tommy John surgery. The right-hander opted for rehab instead and managed to return for a pair of September appearances to prove that his elbow was still intact.

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Tanaka proved no worse for wear the following season when he went 12-7 with a 3.51 ERA in 24 starts for the Yankees. His elbow has been viewed as a ticking time bomb ever since but he’s remained relatively durable, making at least 27 starts in each of the last four seasons and topping 30 starts in three of those years.

Price had a similar scare in the spring of 2017, delaying his season debut until the end of May. He claimed that his “very unique elbow” was capable of healing itself and doctors therefore ruled out surgery. A setback in July that may or may not have been related put Price back on the shelf in July but he pitched well as a reliever when he returned down the stretch and into the postseason.

A strong 2018 season in which he won 16 games with a 3.58 ERA followed by a World Series run that turned him into a postseason hero proved Price’s elbow issues were behind him.

If those pitchers can make it back from this type of injury without surgery, why can’t Sale? His follow-up appointment with Dr. Andrews cleared him to throw again, putting aside concerns that the elbow hasn’t healed properly.

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We won’t be satisfied until we see Sale dominating on the mound in live game action but that’s still a couple of months away. His elbow may have been in worse shape than he was letting on but there’s precedent to support the notion that a few months of rest is enough for Sale to return to form next season.