In the third inning of a game at Fenway Park last week, Nick Gordon, Andrelton Simmons and Rob Refsnyder were scheduled to come to the plate to face Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale.
Nine pitches later, Gordon, Simmons and Refsnyder were back in the dugout and Sale was leaving the mound having joined Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax as the only MLB pitchers on record to hurl an immaculate inning (when a pitcher strikes out all three batters he faces in an inning using the minimum possible number of pitches) on three separate occasions.
Making his third start for Boston since returning from Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2020 season and a good portion of the ’19 campaign, the 6’6″, 180-pound lefty ended up with eight strikeouts and allowed two runs on two hits in 5 1/3 innings while earning the victory.
“Today was probably the best my mechanics have been start-to-finish. I really felt like I was staying on top of the baseball. I really kind of found it out in the bullpen before the game,” Sale said after the dominating performance.
Impressive as the Koufax-ian feat was, Sale’s response after giving up a two-run homer to Twins third baseman Willians Astudillo in the fifth inning of the win was just as notable and entertaining. Clearly upset at allowing an earlier bomb from the burly infielder, the 32-year-old hurler threw three straight 98-MPH fastballs en route to getting the final two outs of the frame. Afterward, Sale provided some insight into the charmingly insane mindset he has used to anchor the Red Sox pitching staff since his recent return to the rotation.
“That’s probably the most pissed I’ve been on a baseball field in a while,” Sale said. “That’s just coming out of anger and frustration. I like to call those F-U fastballs, I can’t really say the word. But I got pissed, I got going.”
Now 3-0 with a 2.35 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 15.1 innings since coming off the injured list, Sale appears to have quickly regained the form that made him one of the best pitchers in the American League for nearly a decade following the lengthy layoff due to Tommy John.
It also appears the slightly unhinged mental state that Sale — who started in the majors as a closer with the Chicago White Sox and has a career ERA of just over 3.00 — has exhibited throughout his career is back, and that’s a good thing.
In case you aren’t familiar with that mental state, let’s go back to 2016. That was the year Sale, in addition to publicly ripping Chicago management for insisting Adam LaRoche had to limit the time his 14-year-old son spent with the team in the clubhouse, went bonkers after the White Sox unveiled 1976 throwback uniforms for the players to wear a week before the trade deadline.
Scheduled to start and fearful the “uncomfortable and unorthodox” jerseys would impact his performance, Sale snuck into the clubhouse and cut up all of the ’76 uniforms, not just his own. With a knife. “I didn’t want to go out there and not be at the top of my game in every aspect that I need to be in,” he said afterward. “Not only that, but I didn’t want anything to alter my mechanics … There’s a lot of different things that went into it. Looking bad had absolutely zero to do with it. Nothing.”
Following the incident, which resulted in Sale being scratched from his start and the team wearing ’83 throwbacks instead, the White Sox suspended him for five games for violating team rules, insubordination and destroying team equipment. In addition to the suspension costing him a cool $250,000, Sale was fined an extra $12,700 for the cost of the ’76 throwback uniforms.
Was it a little nuts? Sure. But it also helped convince the White Sox to deal Sale to the Red Sox for prospects during the offseason and also demonstrated Sale’s commitment to winning, regardless of the impact to his reputation or his wallet. Less than two years after taking a knife to a roster’s worth of uniforms, Sale was a World Series champion and the proud owner of a belly-button ring. Also, still a badass.
“He was good. It showed us that he has something in the tank, right?” Boston manager Alex Cora said after Sale’s last start. “You hate to see the homer, but then after that you saw the numbers going up so that’s a good sign. He was in control. That’s what he does. He competes at a high level. That’s what he wanted and we know he’s got more.”
For the sake of keeping baseball interesting and Boston’s dwindling playoff hopes alive, let’s hope so.
Sale will next take the mound on Wednesday, provided the Red Sox don’t introduce throwbacks in the meantime.