Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale isn’t broken anymore

ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - JULY 12: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 12, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
ST PETERSBURG, FLORIDA - JULY 12: Chris Sale #41 of the Boston Red Sox pitches during a game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on July 12, 2022 in St Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale is returning to vintage form

A Boston Red Sox rotation that has been ravaged by injuries received a significant boost with the return of Chris Sale.

The lefty had been sidelined all season after suffering a right rib cage injury in February. He made his season debut on Tuesday against the Tampa Bay Rays, tossing five shutout innings while allowing only three hits, a walk and striking out five.

It’s been a rough journey for Sale since he recorded the final out of the 2018 World Series. The 2019 season was the worst of his career, posting a 6-11 record and 4.40 ERA. He battled elbow soreness that ended his season in August and eventually led to Tommy John surgery. Sale desperately tried to avoid surgery but rest and rehab wasn’t enough. By the time he finally had the procedure done, his recovery timeline would end up costing him nearly two full seasons.

Sale returned to the mound last August to make nine starts for the Red Sox down the stretch. The results were solid, as he went 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA, but he wasn’t vintage Chris Sale. His velocity was down and he didn’t have the same bite on his slider. His strikeout rate remained strong but not quite at the same elite level it had been while his walk rate drifted slightly higher.

He understandably had some rust to shake off following a lengthy absence but this season was supposed to be his year or redemption. The rib injury was a frustrating setback but he’s finally healthy. Sale is returning after a shorter layoff this time and it isn’t an arm injury that he recovered from.

According to Masslive’s Chris Cotillo, Sale proclaimed himself to be feeling stronger than he did at any point last season. He’s in a much better spot, both physically and mentally, and ready to build on his encouraging season debut.

"“I’m not broken anymore,” Sale said. “It’s different this year.”"

He certainly looked different than he did last year. There was some concern that he wasn’t ready yet after he struggled with his command in his final rehab start for Triple-A Worcester. Sale walked five batters and was pulled after issuing a free pass with the bases loaded in the fourth inning, leading to a meltdown where he took out his frustrations on a television in the hallway leading back to the clubhouse.

Sale was adamant that he would only need a couple of bullpen sessions to iron out his mechanical flaws so he would be back in control of his pitches in time for his major league debut. It appears he was right. Sale threw 53 of his 78 pitches (67.9%) for strikes and only walked one batter.

His velocity is nearly back to his peak form. Sale averaged 95.1 mph on his four-seam fastball and maxed out at 96.9 mph, per Baseball Savant. That’s a significant improvement from the 93.6 mph he averaged last season and nearly identical to his pre-injury velocity in 2018.

Sale’s slider was sharp with notably higher velocity (79.4 mph) and spin rate (2354) than he showed last year with the pitch. His first four strikeouts against the Rays came on the slider, including three batters who were caught looking at the pitch for strike three.

The Red Sox intended to keep Sale on a pitch count of around 85 pitches. Since he was already approaching that limit after five innings, manager Alex Cora decided not to push him any further. In the long run, the cautious approach was a wise way to handle a pitcher returning from an injury and it ensured Sale’s day ended with him feeling good about his performance.

Unfortunately, the short-term ramifications backfired when the bullpen immediately blew the lead in the sixth inning. Ryan Brasier allowed two of the four batters he faced to reach base. Matt Strahm gave up an RBI single, then was injured when the next hitter drilled him with a comebacker. Strahm made an ill-advised throw to first base that went off target and first baseman Franchy Cordero made another throwing error on the same play, allowing two runs to score and giving the Rays a lead they would ultimately hold on to.

An absolute dumpster fire of a sixth inning was a frustrating turning point that the Red Sox couldn’t recover from. It figures that Sale would pitch a gem only for the bullpen to spoil it.

However, it’s important to remember that this is only one game in the middle of a grueling schedule. The greatest takeaway from this game is Sale’s performance. If the seven-time All-Star can return to anything resembling vintage form, the Red Sox are getting a mid-season upgrade that tops any that other contenders will find at the trade deadline.

It’s only been one start but the Red Sox must be pleased with what they saw from Sale. It has been a long road to get back to this point but Sale is healthier than he has been in years and ready to be unleashed.

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