WORCESTER, Mass. — Chris Sale struggled to calm himself down Wednesday night in what was expected to be his last rehab start before he rejoins his teammates in Boston.
Now the Red Sox brass will have to decide whether to pump the brakes on their erstwhile ace’s return.
Sale struck out five Triple-A batters before leaving when he walked in a run with two outs in the fourth inning — his fifth walk of the night — then said he was ready to reclaim his spot in the Boston rotation.
“I’m very ready,” he said after throwing 72 pitches in 3⅔ innings and allowing one run on three hits. “I know today was a little bit of a hiccup, but there’s nothing that can’t be ironed out.”
Pitching for the Worcester Red Sox against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Railriders, a Yankees farm team, Sale failed to deliver a 1-2-3 inning, though he induced a double play to get out of the third.
He loaded the bases in the fourth on three hits — two of them infield singles. He struck out designated hitter Armando Alvarez for the second out with a 96 mph fastball that was his 65th pitch of the game.
That was supposed to be the limit for the 33-year-old left-hander, who broke a rib while working out on his own during the major league lockout. But when pitching coach Paul Abbott came out to talk to Sale, he left alone.
No. 9 hitter David Freitas worked the count to 3-2 and then took a pitch that was close enough for the sold-out crowd to cheer in anticipation of a strikeout. But plate umpire Sam Burch remained silent, the runner trotted in from third to tie the game 1-1, and Sale punched the air in frustration.
Manager Chad Tracy headed to the mound, and Sale departed to a standing ovation from the crowd of 8,891. As he walked off, he waved his glove at Burch in a friendly manner.
“I’m a pitcher. I think they’re all strikes,” Sale told more than two dozen reporters in a midgame news conference in the home clubhouse weight room. “It was probably down. Honestly, I didn’t even look at it.”
Sale did not register a decision in the game, which the Railriders won 4-2. He gave his performance a raspberry and called it “not good” but said his struggle with command was “a blip on the radar.”
“I mean, I walked five guys. I’ve gone months without walking five guys,” the seven-time All-Star said. “That just tells me it right there that nothing’s wrong. It’s just I got some things I have to clean up.”
Sale, whose first pitch was clocked at 97 mph, said his problem was “it was almost too good.”
“I was just battling myself today,” he said. “The stuff was there. I just had to corral it, and couldn’t.”
Sale could return to the Red Sox as soon next week against AL East rival Tampa Bay, which would give him a chance to make one more start against the New York Yankees before the All-Star break.
“This was all for me to get back up to the big leagues and start doing my job and pulling my weight and trying to win a championship,” said Sale, who treated his teammates to a Hibachi lunch and a steak dinner Wednesday. “This is all great, but that’s the big picture and I need to get back there.”
Tracy said it was “completely and utterly out of my hands” what happens next.
“He came out of it healthy and felt really good, which is the most important thing in situations like this,” he said. “He was probably a little amped up … but the stuff looked great. He felt great. To me, with a guy like that, it’s a successful day.”
Sale has thrown just 42⅔ innings for the Red Sox since the end of the 2019 season. He missed all of 2020 recovering from Tommy John surgery, then went 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA last year.
He said working his way back from this injury was much different than the previous one. Since reporting to spring training late, he hasn’t felt any pain in his ribcage at all, Sale said.
“I know today wasn’t great. But comparing this to last year, you’re in a completely different spot,” he said. “Just more confidence in myself and my ability, coming back from a major arm surgery last year, a lot of question marks still.
“This year’s more just sharpening the sword, not rebuilding it.”