'Hand me the ball': Sale dominant in spring debut

February 27th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- As the regular season inches closer, the Braves will take advantage of any opportunity to increase the likelihood that will be healthy and effective for the postseason. As for Sale, he's focused on the next task.

It's far too early to know whether the upcoming season will be kinder than any of the past four injury-tarnished seasons Sale has experienced. But as the veteran left-hander recorded four strikeouts over two perfect innings in the Braves' 13-4 loss to the Pirates on Tuesday afternoon, he distanced himself from health-related frustrations and conjured memories of those years when he was a perennial Cy Young Award candidate.

"You always want to get off on the right foot with your first start in Spring Training," Sale said. "The most important thing is just throwing strikes, feeling healthy and the buildup. I like treating this like a real game. I like to compete and be intense. So, I'm happy with today for sure."

Sale had no choice but to be thrilled with his dominant, 25-pitch spring debut. The 34-year-old hurler cruised through a 14-pitch first inning and then struck out each of the three batters he faced in the second inning. His hardest-thrown pitch of the day was a 97.1 mph fastball that Yasmani Grandal swung through to conclude the first of the three punchouts recorded in the second.

According to Baseball Savant, just three percent (25-of-824) of the fastballs Sale threw last year registered at 97 mph or higher.

Sale's four-seam fastball averaged 94.9 mph on Tuesday. This pitch averaged 95.2 mph in 2018, his most recent season not interrupted by injury.

How dominant were his two primary pitches? The Pirates whiffed on four of six swings against the four-seamer and three of four swings against the slider.

Sale has plenty left to prove over the next six or seven months. But this two-inning debut showed why the Braves were willing to gamble by acquiring him from the Red Sox on Dec. 30. Another general manager told Braves president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos he hadn't even thought about trying to get the left-hander.

This seems to indicate some of the baseball world gave up on Sale after he totaled just 31 starts and 151 innings over the past three seasons. The pitcher endured the long rehab that follows Tommy John surgery and he also dealt with a couple of freak ailments, like the broken wrist he suffered when he fell off a bike.

Sale may never return to where he was when he finished among the top six in American League Cy Young Award balloting over seven straight seasons (2012-18). But Tuesday's outing showed he could be among the game's most dominant pitchers.

"I'm happy with where I'm at," Sale said. "I've got all the people I need around me to get me to where I need to be and be as successful as I can. I'm excited."

Sale got through last season's final two months relatively healthy and experienced his first non-injury-influenced offseason this decade. He seems to be where he needs to be at the end of February. But coming off a season during which he completed just 102 2/3 innings, how will the Braves make sure he can be a factor in October?

Sale will be given extra rest whenever possible and the Braves may have him skip some side sessions during the regular season. His high-intensity approach to pitching may create the desire to make as many starts as possible. But he says he trusts whatever plan the Braves utilize.

"If they want me to throw on four days' rest, hand me the ball," Sale said.

"If you want me to throw on five days' rest, hand me the ball. If you want me to be in the bullpen, hand me the ball. I like to take my mind away from it. Whenever somebody asks me to go pitch, I'll go pitch. Everyone else can figure out all the ins and outs for me."'

As this debut proved, Sale can still be special when given a chance to pitch.