In terms of debuts, you don’t get more impressive than Chris Sale’s first year with the Red Sox after six-plus seasons with the Chicago White Sox.
His first game? He threw seven scoreless innings in a win.
His first month? He averaged 10 strikeouts a game.
His first season? He finished with a league-leading 308 strikeouts and was runner-up in Cy Young voting.
With the bar set so high, the lanky lefty might be hard-pressed for a similarly impressive encore. But after a busy offseason that included a goodwill trip, unwinding with his kids and lots of working out, Sale’s sights are set on making sure this season comes with a more pleasant ending. And he keeps repeating the same mantra: “We’re talking about November.” Although Game 7 of a World Series would be Oct. 31, you get the drift.
If the Red Sox do end up playing in the final week of October, perhaps the spark of chemistry that inspired them could be traced to a trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico in late January. Sale was among those who traveled there, including front office staff and teammates such as Rick Porcello and island natives such as manager Alex Cora and catcher Christian Vazquez. The team, along with Mayor Marty Walsh, arrived with medicine, flashlights, batteries and even some baseball gear—a total of 10 tons of supplies. While the trip was short, it still resonates months later with Sale.
“The drive in was probably the most eye-opening,” Sale says. “It’s crazy to think you’re half a year away from that hurricane happening down there in [Puerto Rico] and there’s still no power, signs down, trees down. Our driver who was driving our van, I was sitting up front and talking with him a lot. We were driving through areas that are usually heavily, heavily wooded and he was pointing to one spot. He said, ‘Do you see all those houses over there? Before the hurricane you couldn’t see those houses because there were so many trees and bushes and things like that.’ And you’re still kind of seeing that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done down there.”
Sale had seen his Florida residence survive the wrath of Hurricane Irma right before Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico. He can’t help but compare the two experiences. Before Irma hit, Sale flew up his wife, their two kids and a few of their friends, allowing them to avoid the storm while hanging out in Boston. Their neighbors texted photos of flooding on their street, their mailbox nearly submerged, and a few trees down on their property, one onto a fence. But overall, the Sales were spared much damage, and a half-year later, much of Florida has recovered. His experience in Puerto Rico told a different story.
“I have a 7 year old and a 1 year old and I’m looking at these kids running around and I’m trying to put myself in that scenario. Where we went, there’s no electricity, there’s nothing. They’re still doing everything they can to get back to normal. That’s a tough spot to be in. Even for a couple of hours, it was nice to take their mind off it and help them out as much as we can,” says Sale, who is hoping to do more for the island in the future. “When you go down and you’re helping people that: A, need help; and B, really appreciate what you’re doing—I just don’t think there’s anything much more satisfying. You see the real passion and appreciation of these people, and it was eye-opening.”
The trip also allowed Cora to bond with Sale and some of the players—a group that hadn’t really been able to spend much time together since the manager was hired in October. “Just to see the appreciation, not only from [Cora and Vazquez], but from people down there, the people we were going to help, just the true passion they have and the real deep appreciation that I saw in everyone down there was great.”
The list of pitchers who struggled in their first season with the Sox this century is long and full of accomplished aces. It includes some players in their primes: Porcello, Josh Beckett and David Price. And it includes some players at the tail end of their careers: Bartolo Colon, John Smoltz, David Wells. Porcello, who watched Sale pitch for Chicago while he was playing for their divisional rival in Detroit through 2014, knew the 6-foot-6-inch pitcher wouldn’t be fazed by the Boston environment.
“It wasn’t surprising to me at all. I’m not saying it was easy for him to do that by any means. But if anyone was going to come in and pick up where he left off with his former team, it’d be him. Just because of his work ethic, mentally how stable he is and how strong he is—and then obviously all of the talented gifts he has physically on the mound. It’s a pretty damn good combination.”
While Sale’s 2017 performance put to rest any doubts he would collapse under the Boston pressure, he did finish the season on a more sour note than he started. He gave up 5 or more earned runs in 4 of his final 12 starts—including Game 1 of the ALDS—after only giving up that many runs once in his first 21 starts. That’s not something Sale is hoping to repeat, which is why his spring training workouts have been a bit different this year—ramping up activity a little later in the spring so that he’s hopefully fresher for the postseason. But the offseason training for Sale was as serious as ever. Porcello, who trained alongside Sale for part of the offseason, spent some time at his own house in Naples during the winter and the two met up about 10 times to workout together.
“There’s a Pilates studio in Naples that we go to together. He kind of got me into Pilates and I started doing that this offseason. It really kind of opened my eyes up to how beneficial a Pilates workout is for a pitcher in terms of body control and stuff. Last year, just watching how he works and what kind of a guy he is, it made me want to be around him even more just to kind of shadow what he does. He does it just about as good as everyone I’ve ever seen,” Porcello says. “It’s more about his work ethic and how on point he is with every workout. He’s there, he doesn’t miss anything. Not that I was missing workouts, but it just kind of reinforces that dedication to your offseason program—and understanding that that’s what prepares you to have a good year.”
While Sale spent a large chunk of the offseason doing normal dad stuff—dropping off his oldest son at school, playing in the pool with his kids, visiting family—he also found time to hang out with Porcello. The two often played pingpong at Sale’s house or played some golf (Porcello says he’s never beaten him).
“I think, not only myself, but everyone on the team has developed a really good relationship and friendship with him on and off the field,” Porcello says. “Obviously he’s got a family and kids, so it wasn’t like we were hanging out every day, but whenever we had an opportunity, we were working out or playing golf or something.”
The 2018 edition of the Red Sox will feature a roster that looks a lot like the 2017 team, but with an almost entirely new coaching staff that’s expected to produce better on-field results and off-field chemistry. Sale says he’s already clicked with new pitching coach Dana Levangie, who previously served as the team’s bullpen coach. And Cora even has the team enthused about March workouts.
“Alex has been awesome. He’s keeping it light, having fun, but he’s got attention to detail. [He says,] ‘We’re not going to be out here all day doing this, but we’re going to do it right, and if we don’t do it right, we’re going to do it until we get it right,’ ” Sale says. “I think that’s a great philosophy to have. I think a lot of times, you get out there and you get redundant. We’re doing 10 or 15 reps and a few are kind of half-hearted. He’s under the assumption of, ‘I’d rather give you 7 or 8 really good ones than 15 all-right ones.’ I think the guys have responded really well to that. We’ve had a blast in the locker room and the clubhouse, so we’re just going to try to keep building on that.”
It’s similar to the work ethic Sale developed while at Florida Gulf Coast University, the one he honed in Chicago, where he began as a reliever and ended as a head-turning ace, and the one he showed the fruits of in his first season in Boston. That first season will always hold a soft spot in Sale’s heart: “Fenway Park with the energy and the fans—when I was in Chicago, pitching at Fenway was one of my favorite places to play. Now that I get to do it in the home whites, it’s even better.”
But regular-season success won’t be enough for Sale. While it’s still months away from the end goal of the World Series, he can’t get his mind off the fall.
Who knows, maybe Game 7 will stretch into the early morning of Nov. 1. If so, you might be talking about Sale’s clutch October performance. Or you might be talking about his soothsayer skills.
“We’re still talking about November.” ◆