Sometimes all the stars align for a truly triumphant sports moment. One of those situations that gets burned into your memory and reminds you why you love sports. The Boston Red Sox are just five games back from the Rays in the division and currently just two and a half games up on the hated Yankees for the second wild card. Sitting right on the brink of either success or complete disaster. Coming into today’s game against the Orioles they had lost six of their last ten games with their starters putting up an ugly 4.57 ERA over the past month and a half. Boston desperately needs a boost, something to right the ship and give them some momentum down the rest of the season. Enter Chris Sale. Remember him? It’s been awhile since we’ve seen him pitch. He’s been recovering since March 30th, 2020 when he went down with a torn UCL and had Tommy John Surgery. Today though he makes his comeback (Cue Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need A Hero”). At 32+ years old and over 1600+ IP on his arm the odds were against him making this start but here he is to save the Red Sox season. I couldn’t write a better story for today’s start. Will we see the old, dominant Chris Sale like nothing ever happened? I’ll be breaking down each inning of his start here and we’ll just have to see won’t we?
Sale wasted no time getting after the first Oriole he faced in Austin Hayes. He started him with a 94 MPH sinker up at the border of the zone that looked like vintage Chris Sale as if he never missed a game. Check out the first pitch Sale has thrown in nearly a year and a half:
One of the keys to his success as Sale goes through this game is his sinker finding success up in the zone and being able to locate it up and in the zone like that will go a long way to helping him out when he throws it up and out of the zone, which ends up being his biggest weapon in this start. He followed it up with a slider outside to move the count to 1-1 before throwing a picture perfect Changeup down and just barely out of the zone which Hayes lifted into shallow left field for the easy pop out as you can see here.
That’s just perfect location for that pitch. In recent years before his injury Sale had started to back off his changeup in favor of his slider but we saw a lot of it in the first inning and it was really effective.
Next he faced down All-Star Trey Mancini, leading him off with a slider that missed the zone badly. In general his control with the slider was a bit off in this inning at times which isn’t really that surprising for a pitcher in his first game back from Tommy John surgery. He followed it up with a beautiful fastball up and in out of the zone that Mancini whiffed at. He tried to duplicate the results with his next pitch but it’s tough to fool Manicini twice with that pitch. Now that he has him looking up in the zone he throws a changeup in the same spot he got Hayes out on but Mancini again doesn’t bite:
This is where this at bat becomes a masterclass in pitching. He throws another changeup located perfectly in the bottom inside corner of the zone which he fouls off:
Now Sale has Mancini right where wants him as he tosses a fantastic slider down and inside off the plate that Mancini can do nothing but flail at:
He set that pitch up with the two previous changeups. The pitches’ movement match up enough with the slider initially that it looks like another CH down in the zone until it’s too late and breaks inside. Just perfect.
Pedro Severino sees just two pitches before he gets a lucky infield hit off another changeup in a fantastic spot. Just caught Devers sitting back at third and there’s not much Sale can do about that.
It wouldn’t matter much though as Anthony Santander never stood a chance. He starts the at bat with a changeup again down and in the zone for a called strike before getting a whiff on a 94 MPH SI up and in, a slider down and in that Santander barely fouled off before going down swinging on another killer SI up and out of the zone.
One of the most encouraging things from Sale so far is that he is attacking with his sinker up with fantastic location and keeping his breaking balls down. He’s constantly changing the hitter’s eye level and mixing and matching his pitches well. Christian Vasquez called a really nice inning too. It’s worth noting as well that Sale has perfectly split his pitch mix throwing each pitch 33.3% of the time.
The Red Sox wasted no time getting Sale an early cushion as they spotting him four runs before he came back out for the second. He again wasted no time getting after the fifth Orioles batter Ryan McKenna throwing him six straight sinkers. This time he was changing up where he looked to throw his sinker (we’ll see this a bit in this inning) going up and down with the pitch. It was clear that McKenna was likely sitting on the changeup or slider as Sale punches him out here looking with a sinker at the knees.
Keeping with the theme of attacking a hitter with the same pitch Sale threw four changeups to Franco in this at bat getting swinging strikes on two of them before drawing a weak groundball out on the fourth.
This is where I started to wonder again if Sale was struggling to command his slider. It’s his signature pitch and we hadn’t seen him throw it at all this inning until this first pitch to Jorge Mateo and you can see it really misses with it.
You don’t see it again in the at bat, in fact outside of one changeup on the fourth pitch, Sale comes at Mateo with five sinkers before getting a groundball out on a sinker in:
This makes think he was moving away from his breaking and off-speed pitches a bit. It’s not something I’m necessarily surprised by. It’s incredibly common for pitchers coming off of Tommy John to struggle for up to half a season sometimes locating their breaking and off-speed pitches as they build back up their muscle memory and form. We’ll see this continue as we move into the third inning.
Coming out for the third, Sale comes right at the Orioles #8 hitter Richie Martin (She Bangs, She Bangs!…oh wait no sorry that’s a different guy) with four straight sinkers striking him out swinging on a well located fastball up and away:
Austin Wynn steps in before the top of the order comes back up and tries to start him off with a slider that just doesn’t come anywhere close to the plate:
Now we’ve seen one or two nasty sliders from Sale already but this is a good example of how he doesn’t quite have his usual control of the pitch yet and we saw this exact look a couple of times throughout the game. He did eventually though get the groundball out to end the inning on a changeup:
Note the location on that changeup though. That’s the first pitch we’ve seen this entire outing that was truly in the heart of the plate. He gets away with it here but remember it because it’s about to come up again. Now back at the top of the order he start Austin Hayes off with another changeup. Note it’s location:
Hayes takes it but it’s another meatball changeup. Hayes battles with him for six more pitches of the sinker and changeup variety before this happens:
This time he doesn’t get away with the changeup in the heart of the plate as Hayes sends it over the wall in left for the Orioles first run of the game.
He only gets two more pitches against Trey Mancini, a sinker right down the pipe which he blasts out over the fence in center field for back to back home runs.
Finally against Pedro Severino we see Sale start to go back to the slider more but he only manages to get it in the zone once and again you can see here that he just can’t seem to get a feel for the pitch:
before striking him out on a perfectly placed sinker in the inside corner of the bottom of the zone. Those meatball pitches that the Orioles punished looked like fatigue pitches to me. The Orioles went down 1-2-3 in the 2nd but each at bat went at least six pitches and again in his first start back from TJ those pitches could have been the result of getting back into shape and form which just takes time and reps.
To start the Fourth Anthony Santander stepped up to the plate and for the first time we see Sale really rely on his secondary offerings and it pays off. Pitch #4 of the at bat is the first real signature big sweeping slider we see in this start and it is a stellar pitch:
When he gets the feel for that pitch again he’s going to be absolutely devastating like the days of old and it’s encouraging to see it here even if it wasn’t always there in this start.
Ryan McKenna was the next hitter up for the second time and Sale made him look silly for two pitches with a called strike on a perfectly placed changeup and a swinging strike on a sinker up and in. Then Sale threw a really nice slide piece here that McKenna just barely gets the end of the bat on it and bloops it into left field for a double:
You can’t blame Sale for that outcome that’s a fantastic pitch. Sometimes it just doesn’t break your way and the hitter makes a nice adjustment.
Maikel Franco didn’t waste any time trying to drive in McKenna fouling off a great sinker up and in and then flying out on a changeup that again Sale may have gotten away with as it caught a bit more of the plate then you would like to see.
Again it doesn’t really matter as with two outs Sale simply bowls over Jorge Mateo with with four straight sinkers, striking him out swinging on a 95 MPH sinker up.
Sale’s sinker had mostly been sitting in the low 90s all afternoon and it was really encouraging to see him hitting 95 on the pitch as he got going. Since we know often velocity can be dependent on form and rhythm for someone as tall as Sale I think it’s really telling that he was picking up velocity as he got more pitches under his belt. It’s also entirely possible a guy as competitive as Sale knew he was coming up to the end of the outing and just started throwing gas.
In a fascinating turn of events, while Sale got himself in a little bit of trouble overall in the inning, this is where we saw the slider COME ALIVE. Here he looked like the Sale of old in every way and it was pretty fun to watch. He starts things off by absolutely overwhelming Richie Martin with four straight electric looking sinkers. Then fully set up for the rope-a-dope Sale goes to the changeup down and away that Martin barely gets a piece of and gets an infield hit.
The next hitter Austin Wynns gets fooled on this beautiful slider Sale throws him here:
This is the pitch. That’s the destroyer of worlds slider that we know and love from Sale. Unfortunately he leaves a sinker here in the heart of the plate on the fifth pitch of the at bat that Wynns slaps into right field. This is bad news though for Richie Martin who Hunter Renfroe does what Hunter Renfroe does best and guns him down at third base for the first out:
Next up comes Austin Hayes and you could tell Sale smelled blood in the water. After getting a bit lucky when Hayes fouls off another iffy changeup he sets him down again with another trademark slide piece that is absolutely unhittable.
Sensing that this was likely Sale’s last batter as he was on a pretty hard set limit of 90 pitches the crowd in Boston came to their feet to cheer him on against Trey Mancini who had already homered off him once today. Chris Sale did not disappoint them as he got Mancini out on a four pitch at bat by getting him to ground out to short on another fantastic slider down and away.
Thoughts, Observations and Conclusions
This was about as commanding a return from Tommy John as I have ever seen for a pitcher. When he first went down with the UCL injury there were many who wondered if he’d even pitch again given his age and mileage and let me tell you not only did he pitch again he looked really good. The third inning was really the only inning he didn’t look completely in control and for the most part controlled his pitches pretty well for his first time pitching in over a year and a half. He struck out eight hitters over five inning and didn’t walk anyone which is a really encouraging sign for a pitcher coming off TJ. His sinker was on point all game as he attacked hitters over and over up in and out of the zone and when he located it up and in it was unhittable. Overall the pitch garnered a 42 CSW% with seven whiffs. It touched 96 MPH but mostly sat around 93 MPH which we should see rise as he gets back into shape. His changeup was a really great weapon for him early on but it seemed like he lost his feel for it around the third inning and had a difficult time locating it from there. The slider really didn’t show up until the end of the outing but when it did it was fantastic, Sale just mostly struggled to command it for most of the game which will only get better with each start he makes from here on out. All in all this was an incredibly encouraging start where for the most part we saw the same dominant pitcher we’ve come to expect with Sale and shades of the Ace we know he will get back to again as he becomes less reliant on his sinker and gets the feel back for his other pitches again. Get excited folks, Tommy John would have been a really bummer way to see Sale’s career end and it’s really really fun to watch him make this comeback. Boston fans should be over the moon after this start and should feel way, way better about their chances this year now that they’ve added Sale back to the rotation.