At a time when the Boston Red Sox sorely need healthy and effective starting pitchers, Chris Sale is finally back.
His return to the mound did not end up well for the Red Sox, who sustained a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field on Tuesday. It was a cringe-worthy affair for Boston, literally in the sense that Trevor Story and Matt Strahm suffered painful-looking injuries and figuratively in that the tying and go-ahead runs scored via a comedy of errors in the sixth.
With the win, the 47-40 Rays leapfrogged the 47-41 Red Sox for second place in the American League East.
But Sale himself? He was good. The ace left-hander twirled five scoreless innings, allowing three hits and one walk while striking out five.
“I’m not broken anymore,” Sale said after the game, per Ian Browne of MLB.com. “It’s different this year. It’s definitely different this year. That’s all I’ve really got to say.”
As it was his first major league appearance since Oct. 20, 2021, Tuesday's outing marked Sale's second long-awaited return from injury in as many years. The Tommy John surgery that he underwent in March 2020 kept him out until Aug. 14 of last year. This time, the 33-year-old was beset by a stress fracture in his ribcage and a "personal medical issue."
The seven-time All-Star also experienced some drama during his minor league rehab assignment, though the most notable incident was of his own making. By his own admission, he had a "seven-year-old temper tantrum" in the tunnel between the dugout and clubhouse after struggling with his control in a start for the Triple-A Worcester Red Sox on July 6.
Yet all of this is of no consequence now. For the Red Sox, what matters is that Sale is back and that he's already showed he can make a difference in the stretch run.
What Sale Did (and Didn't) Prove in His Return
For the most part Tuesday, Sale looked as good or even better than he did in his return from Tommy John in 2021.
For starters, consider his fastball. He got it up to 96.9 mph and sat at an average of 95.1 mph. Both numbers put him a leg up on where he was after his first start back in '21, wherein he topped out at 96.0 mph and sat at 93.2 mph.
Now consider his slider. The pitch accounted for 28 of his 78 pitches, and the Rays managed only four balls in play on the nine swings they took at it. Its action was sharp and Sale's command of it was generally sublime.
As long as Sale has these two pitches working, he can be at least as good as he was last season. That's a good pitcher, as his nine regular-season starts yielded a 3.16 ERA and a 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 42.2 innings.
But if Sale wants to be better than that—say, as good as the guy who gave Boston a 2.56 ERA and a 7.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio across 2017 and 2018—he's going to need his changeup.
The pitch was a key part of his arsenal through the first nine seasons of his major league career, routinely accounting for negative (i.e., good for pitchers) run values. But that began to change pre-Tommy John in 2019 and then only got worse in 2021:
There wasn't a whole lot about the pitch that worked in '21. It didn't have as much velocity separation from his fastball. Throw in just-OK vertical movement and generally spotty location, and it's no wonder that batters teed off for a .444 average against Sale's changeup.
And those batters? They were all right-handed. If you're looking for the culprit for why righty batters' best OPS against Sale went from .701 all the way up to .824, there it is.
Which brings us to the vaguely alarming part of Sale's 2022 debut. Of the 15 changeups he offered, the Rays collected five balls in play on the six swings they took at the pitch. The one exception was not a swing and miss, but a foul ball.
At least until he starts getting results on his changeup, he and the Red Sox can only hope that the pitch will come around. And for what it's worth, they're already there.
For his part, Sale expressed confidence in his changeup after his final minor league tune-up:
Manager Alex Cora also declared Sale's changeup to be "back" as soon as he saw the veteran throw a simulated game in June.
"Last year he was a two-pitch pitcher, you know, fastball/slider," Cora added. "And his changeup kind of played like a BP fastball. It didn't have the action, and that's why you didn't see it often. He'd throw two or three during an outing. But now he's 100 percent with his arm, the other issues are OK now, he's ready to go, and I'm very excited."
Regardless, the next test for Sale and his changeup is a doozy. He's slated to make his second start Sunday against the New York Yankees, who are 61-26, at Yankee Stadium, where they're 34-10.
The Red Sox Avoided the Worst-Case Scenario with Sale's Debut
To this point, the Red Sox season that Sale has missed out on can be charitably described as "inconsistent."
They enjoyed a run as the winningest team in Major League Baseball between May 13 and June 26, but on either side of that are two stretches in which they've hardly resembled the contender they were supposed to be after their trip to the American League Championship Series in 2021:
- First 31 G: 11-20
- Next 42 G: 31-11
- Last 15 G: 5-10
As far as what's gone wrong for the Red Sox of late, "injuries" works dandy as a one-word answer. Particularly with regard to the starting rotation, which is missing Nathan Eovaldi (back inflammation), Garrett Whitlock (hip inflammation), Rich Hill (knee sprain) and Michael Wacha (shoulder inflammation) all at the same time.
Through June 8, these four started 40 of the Red Sox's 57 games and pitched to a combined 3.38 ERA. As each has fallen to injuries since then, the Red Sox have had to farm out 14 starts to other, less experienced pitchers. Their combined ERA is 5.68.
With Nick Pivetta having hit a wall—i.e., 13 runs allowed in his last two starts—after he pitched to a sub-2.00 ERA between May 7 and June 29, things have been even worse lately. In July, the 7.19 ERA posted by Boston starters is the worst in the league.
Knowing all this, what the Red Sox saw from Sale on Tuesday was far from the worst-case scenario. If he'd been lit up or felled by a recurrence of old injuries or by an all-new hurt, the boost Boston was hoping for would have vanished in a poof.
This, of course, didn't happen. And as such, the Red Sox can move forward as planned.
That is, progressively welcome Eovaldi, Hill and Wacha back to the starting rotation between now and the end of July. Whitlock should also be returning in the near future, though it's already been determined that he'll be heading back to the bullpen.
As there's not a whole lot not to like about an Eovaldi-Sale-Pivetta-Wacha-Hill starting five and Whitlock back in a role for which he has a career 1.84 ERA, it's a good plan.
The Red Sox's Remaining Schedule Won't Make It Easy
Even as the Red Sox were bowling over the competition during their 31-11 run, it was no secret that they weren't playing the role of a world-beater. Of the 11 different opponents they took on, only the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners are in line to make the playoffs.
Things have gotten tougher for the Red Sox in the last couple of weeks, and there isn't really any kind of let-up in sight.
On the contrary, Tankathon puts the winning percentage of Boston's remaining opponents at .536. That's the highest such mark in the majors, and it has a lot to do with how the Beantowners have barely scratched the surface of their intra-division slate.
Still to come are 12 games against the Yankees, 11 games each against the Rays and (the suddenly good) Baltimore Orioles and nine against the Toronto Blue Jays. That's 43 games against four teams that, to date, have beaten up on Boston to the tune of an 11-22 record.
With a road ahead this tough, even Sale's comeback and the looming returns of other starters may not be enough to sustain the Red Sox as a wild-card contender. They would do well to identify holes in need of patching at the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
As they rank 29th in the majors in rWAR at the position, first base would seem to be a priority. And Chaim Bloom, Boston's Chief Baseball Officer, doesn't necessarily disagree, telling Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com that the cold corner "is a spot where we can be open to additions from the outside."
Though their relievers actually rank fifth in rWAR, anyone who's experienced the Red Sox bullpen this season will know it to be especially meltdown-prone. Having Whitlock back alongside Tanner Houck and John Schreiber (who have a 1.14 ERA between them since May 25) will obviously help, but Bloom also sees it as an area he'll be "looking to fortify."
There's never a shortage of quality relievers available at the deadline, and so it will be this year. Longtime Yankees foe David Robertson, now with the Chicago Cubs, and old friend Daniel Bard, now with the Colorado Rockies, are the best rentals out there. If Bloom wants to aim higher, Pittsburgh Pirates righty David Bednar or even Milwaukee Brewers lefty Josh Hader could potentially be extracted from the National League Central at the right price.
As for first base, Bloom would do well to have Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo on speed dial about Josh Bell. The Nationals are the opposite of competitive, yet the switch-hitter is nonetheless making the most of his walk year by batting .304 with an .877 OPS.
In context of all this, there's at least one optimistic viewpoint to take of where the Red Sox are right now. If they're going to be at their most vulnerable at any point during the least forgiving stretch of their schedule, better at the start of it than at the end.
This way, any sense of urgency the Red Sox get won't be too little, too late.