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Boston Herald
Boston Herald
22 Jul 2023
Gabrielle Starr

NextImg:Chris Sale talks teammates, trade deadline, top prospects

At this point, Chris Sale is as used to watching the Red Sox from the sidelines as any fan who’s followed the team over the last four years.

Tommy John surgery, several fractures, and now, shoulder inflammation, have cost him more than two full seasons of his career. Since mid-August 2019, when he landed on the injured list for what turned out to be the rest of the season, he’s only made 22 regular-season starts totaling 107 ⅓ innings. He missed all of ’20 after undergoing Tommy John in April of that year, and didn’t return until August ’21 nearly two years to the day of his last start in ’19. A rib stress fracture pushed his ’22 season debut back to mid-July, when, in the first inning of his second start, a line drive fractured his pinky. While he recovered from that injury and subsequent surgery, he fractured his wrist. That required a second surgery and ended his season after just 5 2/3 innings.

This year, the lefty made it through his first fully healthy spring training since ’18. He was ready for the Opening Day roster for the first time since ’19, and started Boston’s second game of the season.

After struggling in his first few starts, the rust began to fall away. He began to look like his old self. Over his last six starts between April 30 and June 1, he posted a 2.25 ERA and held opposing batters to a .191 average and minuscule .589 OPS.

On June 1, his manager pulled him after 3 ⅔ innings. He went on the injured list with shoulder inflammation.

He’d have to work his way back once again.

The upside Sale found from these setbacks is that he’s gotten to familiarize himself with the organization and its prospects. He champions his teammates, and is grateful to them for stepping up in his absence; in particular, James Paxton and Brayan Bello anchoring the rotation.

“It’s bittersweet,” he told the Herald after playing catch on Saturday morning. “Obviously, I’d rather be out there helping them, but to be able to hold down the staff like they’ve done, with me, and Tanner (Houck), Whit (Garrett Whitlock), all being gone, they’ve had to step up, and they’ve answered very well.

“Know how hard Paxton had to work to get here, coming back from Tommy John, I was with him a little bit, and I can relate,” he said. The two veteran starters underwent surgery a year apart, but each missed more time than expected due to additional injuries.

Not only is Bello a full decade younger than Sale, who turned 34 on Opening Day, he’s the only pitcher younger than 25 on a team that’s used 14 pitchers aged 30 or older. The average age of a Red Sox pitcher this year is 29.9 years old, which makes Bello’s growth in his first year as a Major League pitcher all the more impressive to Sale.

“Bello’s really looking good,” he lauded. “I think you see that fire in him, you know, that not only does he want to be good, he’s now at the point where he expects that. That’s fun to see in a young guy that’s pitching well.”

Sale has great appreciation for his organization’s newfound depth depth. He’s seen Red Sox seasons collapse in recent years when they didn’t have enough of it, and due to his injuries and rehab assignments, he’s already gotten to know many of the players getting called up this year.

“One of my favorite parts about what I went through over the last couple of years is being able to see those guys. I played with some of them in Portland two years ago, I played with them in Worcester last year,” Sale says. “Being able to see these guys before they get here, and just know like, OK when they get here, they’re going to be ready.

“It speaks to our staff that we have in the minor leagues, too. The guys we have developing them, the work they all put in, it’s exciting, and it shows.”

The farm has come full circle since Sale arrived in Boston via trade with the Chicago White Sox ahead of the ’17 season. In January 2016, a month after the Red Sox acquired Sale, Baseball America graded them the 4th best farm system in the game. They ranked 14th entering spring training in 2017, and by 2018, they’d fallen to 24th, the price of building their fourth championship team in 15 years. They’d bottom out at 30th the following year before beginning to climb. After landing at 20th on BA’s rankings in both ’20 and ’21, they jumped to 11th last year, and entered this season 10th.

“It speaks to our minor league system, our farm system, our coaches, our player development, training staff, strength staff,” Sale said emphatically. “These guys are not only getting better at baseball, they’re getting stronger, they’re getting smarter, they’re getting more polished.

“It’s all kind of coming to the forefront now, and being able to have that depth, to be able to say, ‘Hey, put all the names in a hat and throw someone out there,’ and you know more times than not, they’re gonna get the job done.”

“Even guys we’ve made trades for or picked up. Look at Berny,” he said, singling out Brennan Bernardino. The Red Sox claimed him off waivers from the Seattle Mariners in mid-April, and he’s become a key contributor in the bullpen; since May 16, his 1.40 ERA leads the pitching staff.

As much perspective and appreciation as Sale has for his organization and his teammates, make no mistake: he’s champing at the bit to join the fight.

“We got me, Whit, Tanner, Trevor (Story) coming back, (John) Schreiber coming back,” he said excitedly.

Trevor Story began his own rehab assignment on Friday night with a 3-run homer over Portland’s mini-Green Monster.

“I saw that,” Sale laughed. “He worked his ass off, I’m telling you. He got after it.”

The shortstop underwent internal brace surgery in January, a new procedure that’s a sort of alternative to Tommy John.

“He knows the pain of being a pitcher now,” Sale said with a rueful smile.

Sale will throw his next bullpen on Sunday or Monday. If all goes well, he’ll progress to facing live hitters, and a rehab assignment will follow.

In the meantime, he’s busy championing his team. He’s wowed by Jarren Duran, Triston Casas, Justin Turner, and Masataka Yoshida, who entered the day with a .317 batting average.

“It’s almost unfair at this point,” he said.