Sale's return trumps any Deadline deal

July 20th, 2021

The player who might turn out to be the most important “Trade Deadline” acquisition for any contender, in either league, is scheduled to pitch for the Portland Sea Dogs on Tuesday night, hoping to throw four innings -- maybe five depending on his pitch count. His last start before that, in the Florida Complex League, was against Orioles Minor Leaguers last Thursday, when he pitched three innings, gave up four hits, struck out five. His name is Chris Sale. Maybe you remember him. Red Sox fans still do, from before he had Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2020.

The last time the Red Sox won the World Series, Sale was their ace, even limited to 27 starts in 2018. His earned run average was 2.11. He struck out 237 batters in 158 innings, which for that stat is pitching in deGrom-ville. The night the Red Sox beat the Dodgers to win their fourth World Series in this century, Sale came out of the bullpen to strike out the side in the bottom of the 9th, and bottom of the Series, throwing a filthy slider to Manny Machado to finally end things.

Even when he was clearly not his best self the next year, with a 6-11 record and 4.40 ERA before being shut down after 25 starts, he still struck out 218 in 147 1/3 innings. He was hurt by then, clearly. He finally had surgery.

Now he is coming back. He is still just 32, which does happen to be nearly a year younger than Jacob deGrom. With the White Sox and then the Red Sox, Sale truly was one of the aces of baseball. And if he is close to what he was, or back to being what he was, a surprising Red Sox team -- which has spent so much time in first place in the American League East despite a recent slump -- gets a lot better. Because Sale might be, for the second time in Boston, what he was brought there to be:

A game-changer.

“One thing’s for sure: If it was up to Chris, he’ll go 7 [innings] tomorrow to be honest with you,” manager Alex Cora said the other day. “He feels that good. But we’ve got to be patient, like I said, and just stay with the process. We’ve been very patient throughout, and we’re not going to deviate from that.”

“It’s like a trade,” J.D. Martinez said.

And Matt Barnes, the Red Sox All-Star closer, said this:

“I have no doubt in my mind that when he comes back, he’s going to be Chris Sale. And any time you can get a guy like that on a team that’s making a push, it’s completely invaluable. It’s incredible.”

There is always a lot of speculation about the Yankees at the Trade Deadline, even when they are in fourth place in the East, the way they were this morning. People expect the Blue Jays to make moves, trying to add pitching themselves, especially after their pitchers gave up 13 runs to the Red Sox on Monday night, a night when the Jays fell behind, 11-0, after just two innings. The Rays? They are a little bit like the Red Sox with Sale, hoping to get their own ace, Tyler Glasnow, back from injury.

But if Chris Sale, 16 months after his surgery, is close to having his arm back, no team will make a more impactful pickup than the Red Sox will. And there is a chance, if he is one of the lucky ones coming back from Tommy John, that his left arm might actually feel as if it has more life in it than it did back in 2018, when he came out of the blocks the way he did for the Red Sox, when over the first half of that season he looked as dominant as any pitcher around.

Sale got slowed in the summer of 2018 by a shoulder injury. Even when he came back from that, before the Red Sox shut down Sale as a way of getting him ready for the postseason, the lefty struck out 12 Orioles batters in a five-inning outing, and gave up just one hit. As always, he was averaging fewer than two walks per nine innings, despite his dazzling strikeout numbers (the last time Sale averaged more than two walks per nine was nine years ago, as a matter of fact).

Because of his motion and arm angle, there was the fear for years that Sale would break down. He finally did. He had surgery. He has been making baby steps across the spring and summer. On Tuesday night, he was scheduled to take his biggest step back, with Double-A Portland, toward the Boston rotation. Red Sox fans will be as interested in that game on Tuesday night as another game between their team and the Blue Jays in Buffalo, N.Y.

“Huge if we can get Sale back to 80 percent of what he is, 75 percent,” Martinez said.

It is ironic that Sale’s comeback plays out with the Trade Deadline this imminent. But it does. Star players are going to be moving next week, because they always do. The Red Sox just want to move their ace back to where he belongs: The mound at Fenway Park.