Boston’s ace, coming back from a stress fracture in his right rib cage that he sustained in February, showed no rust from the time off.
The lanky lefty fired five scoreless innings against veteran Corey Kluber and the Rays, allowing three hits while walking one and striking out five.
After Sale’s exit, the Red Sox had a defensive mishap in the bottom of the sixth and a baserunning blunder that conspired to put manager Alex Cora’s club in the loss column for the 10th time in the past 15 games.
But in the big picture, Tuesday was a big day for Boston. And catcher Christian Vázquez let Sale know that in the bullpen before the game.
“I told him it was a special day for the organization and for us to have him on the mound again,” Vázquez said. “It means a lot for us to see him back.”
It was a message Sale took to heart.
“I was really able to separate myself from that moment and appreciate that,” Sale said. “What he said meant a lot. You just kind of carry that through the game, and it was important to me.”
In 78 pitches, Sale topped out at 96.9 mph. He averaged 95.1 mph. This was a far stronger Sale than the guy who returned from Tommy John surgery last August.
“I’m not broken anymore,” Sale said. “It’s different this year. It’s definitely different this year. That’s all I’ve really got to say.”
The difference was evident in Sale’s entire pitch mix.
Sale threw 32 fastballs, 28 sliders, 15 changeups and three sinkers. The Rays swung 28 times and took 25 called strikes. Their selective approach helped keep Sale’s whiff total to a modest four.
“He threw the ball well and finished well,” Cora said. “Did an outstanding job toward the end, had good velocity and command of the pitches were OK. Delivery was under control, and he gave us five innings, so that’s a good start.”
The best sign of all is that Sale was able to reach back for multiple pitches that seared in at over 96 mph to the final batter he faced -- the dangerous Yandy Díaz.
“[Sale was] really good," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "I'm glad that his pitch count wasn't any higher than it was, because we had some trouble."
Sale finished with a 1-2-3 fifth inning that came on the heels of the Red Sox scoring twice in the top of the frame.
“Some things happened, the landscape of the game, where I’m at, you want to get through it,” Sale said. “Especially after we score, I needed a shutdown inning after that. That was basically my mentality there.”
For Sale, just being able to compete with his teammates again was what fulfilled him most.
“It’s everything to me,” said Sale. “It means a lot.”
When Sale left the mound at the end of the fifth, the entire dugout greeted him with hugs and handshakes.
“Honestly, the first one, it’s just getting it out of the way. You never really know what it’s going to be,” he said. “I just want to keep building off of it, keep throwing strikes, keep staying strong and keep attacking hitters. That’s it.”
The plan is for Sale to pitch the final game before the All-Star break -- on Sunday at Yankee Stadium against a juggernaut New York squad.
“Yeah, nothing better than pitching at Yankee Stadium,” he said. “It will be a good one. Got a couple more here to get, so we’ll focus on that. When that comes, I’ll be ready.”
Without question, Sale was ready for Tuesday.
“He was nasty today," Vázquez said. "Used all his pitches -- changeups, fastballs, slider backdoor for strikes. He was dirty.”
Boston’s rotation, depleted by injuries for the past few weeks, not only has Sale back, but Nathan Eovaldi is lined up to pitch Friday night in New York.