FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) —
It was just a batting practice session, one of the lowest spring training rungs in a pitcher’s preparation for opening day. But for Chris Sale, it was progress.
Even after finishing with a fastball that a Triple-A prospect who batted .204 last year managed to hit over the fence Sunday morning, Sale and the Red Sox were pleased.
“Let’s end on that one,” Sale said, laughing, as he walked off the mound.
Pitching coach Dave Bush was satisfied.
“I thought he looked good,” Bush said. “It was an important step in progression through the spring. It was a full pregame routine with long toss and time in the bullpen and then 15 pitches on the mound. So, it was a normal step for him. He felt pretty good and I thought it looked pretty good.”
The previous time Sale faced hitters was Aug. 13, when he gave up five runs with 12 strikeouts over 6 2/3 innings in a win at Cleveland. The left-hander was put on the injured list after that with elbow inflammation, ending his season at 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA in 25 starts.
Sale will start this season on the IL after reporting to camp with pneumonia, setting him back by about two weeks. He did not speak to reporters after pitching batting practice.
A month shy of turning 31, Sale was an All-Star seven straight years and got the final out of the 2018 World Series. That was all before last season’s struggles.
Sale’s outing came on a back field at Boston’s complex. He threw about 18 pitches in what was planned as a 15-pitch session to a pair of Red Sox minor leagers, right-handed hitting Jantzen Witte and left-handed batting Josh Ockimey. They got two at-bats, with Ockimey ended the season by pulling Sale’s fastball deep to right field.
“Yes, knowing that he’s behind schedule because of him being sick,” Bush said. “Otherwise, he’s right in line with where I’d expect him to be and where most other pitchers were at this time.”
Manager Ron Roenicke joked the day before that he was having a hard time finding volunteers to bat against Sale.
“I remember facing him, I think in (spring training) 2017,” said Ockimey, who hit 25 home runs for Triple-A Pawtucket last season. “It was my first live arm actually that year, and I kind of remember how it was. I had to make sure my ankles were right, but, yeah, it was definitely fun facing him this time around.”
“He looked really good, really good. His fastball was definitely coming in there. I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to hit the slider. But yeah, everything still looked really good,” he said.
New Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki was behind the plate for Sale’s session.
“I’ve been looking forward to catching him ever since I signed here, so it’s good to get back there and see him first-hand and everything looked really good,” Plawecki said.
“It’s the first time I’ve caught him so it’s hard for me to kind of go off anything else besides facing him as a hitter. So everything looked good to me, coming in good, slider looked great, changeup looked good, good life to his fastball. So, all in all, I think it went pretty well,” he said. “It’s still got that funk to it, but it’s a lot easier when I know what’s coming rather than facing it.”
Depending upon how he responds to his initial outing, Sale is expected to progress to a two-inning batting practice session on Thursday, throwing a total of about 30 pitches, and go on a normal five-day schedule after that.
Sale is entering the first year of a five-year, $145 million contract he signed in spring training last year. This will be his third stint on the IL since Boston acquired him before the 2017 season.
Sale also missed about a month near the end of the 2018 season before returning to help the team win the World Series that year.
The Red Sox are confident Sale is over the elbow issues that limited him last season.
“So with Chris it’s just building up to where we feel comfortable in him and getting him through the year, keeping him strong, hopefully September and hopefully into October,” Roenicke said.
With two spots currently open in the rotation, the Red Sox are anxious to get Sale back as soon as possible, and back to the form that helped him to finish second and fourth in AL Cy Young voting in his first two seasons in Boston.
“So far, he’s already shown that,” Bush said. “He feels healthy. All the issues he had last year are behind him at this point. So, the buildup is the same as it would be for any other pitcher and that’s the most important thing is that he is on track and on time, other than being delayed for being sick. His progression is on track and on time with where I’d expect it to be.”
“So, that will allow him, when he’s ready, to go into the season without any restrictions and he can pitch and be the guy that he wants to be.”
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