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Ready or not, Chris Sale is about to find out what it means to pitch for Red Sox

by: John Tomase on Tue, 04/04/2017 - 11:47am

Chris Sale (right) received a hero's welcome on Opening Day. (Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports)It took a cold winter's day at Foxwoods for Chris Sale to finally realize what he was in for in Boston.

At the Red Sox winter carnival in January, Sale waited backstage before being introduced alongside his new teammates at a packed town hall. This was Sale's first exposure to Red Sox fans, and what he saw shocked him.

They were everywhere, clad head to toe in Sox gear, prowling the Connecticut casino just a couple of weeks before the Patriots would take on the Falcons in Super Bowl 51. As Sale heard his name called and stepped onto the stage, he could barely believe the electricity.

"My legs were shaking," he said. "I had butterflies."

Sale took the stage to thunderous applause that told him two things -- Boston really cares about baseball, and it was time to deliver.

The Red Sox can only hope he's up to the task.

"You're kind of blown away," Sale said. "This is my first time being able to interact with the new fans and this fanbase. For that to be my first impression, it's incredible. It's a moment I'll remember for the rest of my life. I'll hopefully hear that a few more times."

The Red Sox shocked baseball at the winter meetings by acquiring Sale from the White Sox for two of their top prospects -- Cuban strongman Yoan Moncada and flame-throwing right-hander Michael Kopech -- and two lesser pieces. They added him to a rotation that already included defending Cy Young Award winner Rick Porcello, former Cy Young Award winner David Price (before he hurt his elbow, anyway), and 2016 All-Stars Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz.

They effectively obtained him to replace retired slugger David Ortiz, shifting their focus from run-scoring to run-prevention.

In the process, they added one of the most talented arms in baseball, a 6-foot-6 beanpole with an unorthodox delivery, five straight All-Star appearances, and dominating stuff.

On Wednesday when he makes his Red Sox debut against the Pirates, we'll get to see how he handles Boston.

"He will be great," said White Sox general manager Rick Hahn, who reluctantly traded him to jumpstart a rebuild. "He's got the front-end No. 1 ace mentality, which is going to play well in any market, and I think he's going to be invigorated by the chance to play meaningful games in October."

Of more immediate concern for Sale, 28, will be avoiding the fate to befall so many high-profile pitchers to debut here.

It's easy to forget that Josh Beckett compiled an unsightly 5.01 ERA in 2006 while allowing a staggering 36 homers. John Lackey posted a 5.26 ERA over his first two seasons before undergoing Tommy John surgery and becoming a World Series hero. Porcello pitched like an $80 million bust in 2015 before experiencing his renaissance. Price struggled to find his mechanics last year. 

Even the great Pedro Martinez faded down the stretch in 1998, losing three of his final four starts before embarking on perhaps the greatest run of dominance ever from 1999-2001.

"I haven't harped on it," manager John Farrell said. "He's been in the big leagues quite a while. Certain markets, there's a tremendous amount of passion and expectation. I'm confident he embraces that. I know he's excited to be here with the Red Sox, but he's going to experience some firsts here in Boston, and we're looking forward to that."

The good news is Sale feels uniquely suited to thriving here. He's not on Facebook, he doesn't use social media or share his cell number with reporters, and he rarely reads coverage.

"I'm not a big media guy," Sale said. "I don't have Twitter. I'm not going to be reading as much about everything as probably the next guy. I'm really more focused on the between-the-lines stuff. That's what I signed up for. That's what I look forward to. That's what I live for, playing the game of baseball. Everything else, it'll take care of itself, it'll shake out. The good outweighs the bad. You've got to roll with it."

Sale's resume speaks for itself. He reached the big leagues in 2010 at age 21 and made his first start two years later, finishing sixth in the Cy Young voting. He has finished no worse than fifth in the four years since.

He arrives in Boston with a lifetime record of 74-50 and an ERA of 3.00. He has averaged 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings and led the league with 274 Ks in 2015. His strikeout-to-walk of 4.78 is the greatest in big league history, ahead of former Red Sox great Curt Schilling.

That's his resume. Sale likens himself to a racehorse.

"The horse has his blinders on and he runs until he's told not to run or the race is over, whatever it is," he said. "That's my goal this year, to just focus on baseball things. Anything outside of that, put the blinders up. A lot of distraction can go on throughout the season and in the clubhouse, whatever it is, and I'm going to do my best to kind of keep those separated and keep my focus on baseball-related things."

Of course, Sale is no stranger to controversy, as the White Sox discovered last year.

For a guy who generally avoids the limelight, Sale found himself on center stage twice in 2016. The first time came in spring training, when the White Sox told former Red Sox infielder Adam LaRoche that his 14-year-old son, Drake, was no longer welcome at the ballpark.

LaRoche decided to retire and it led to a clubhouse mutiny, with some anonymous players reportedly troubled by the younger LaRoche's ubiquity, and others, like Sale, vocally supportive of his presence. Sale focused his ire on team president Kenny Williams, who made the decision.

"We got bold-faced lied to by someone we were supposed to trust," Sale fumed to reporters. "This isn't us rebelling against the rules. This is us rebelling against B.S., plain and simple."

Fast-forward to late July. Sale is scratched from a start against the Tigers and sent home for a non-physical "clubhouse incident." Word soon leaks that Sale refused to wear the team's 1976 throwback jerseys because he didn't like the feel of the collar, so he took matters into his own hands by grabbing scissors and making like Freddy Krueger, cutting up not only his jersey, but those of his teammates as well.

When Sale reflects on those incidents, he admits some regret, but refuses to look back. The Red Sox, for their part, jokingly welcomed him to the club in spring training by presenting him with a sliced up jersey at a spring training team meeting, president Sam Kennedy told Kirk & Callahan.

"The only thing I'm going to really say on that is I'm a completely different person when I'm here and when I'm in between the painted lines," Sale said. "I can say that for sure. There's definitely a switch that goes on. The things on the field I don't do in my everyday life.

"It wasn't exactly between the white lines, but yeah it all goes into the passion I have for playing the game and things are going to happen. Nobody's perfect, you're going to make mistakes. All I really want to say on that is you live and you learn. I have two sons now. A 6-year-old and a 2-month-old and I tell them, 'You're going to make mistakes, but if you learn from your mistakes that's the key.' Everybody here has made a mistake. If you learn from it, you become a better person. If you keep making the same mistakes, you're kind of spinning your tires."

Price's injury has put a damper on the enthusiasm the Red Sox carried into spring training, when they bragged about having three of the six pitchers who tossed over 220 innings last year on one staff. With Price expected to miss the first month -- if not a lot longer -- the Red Sox won't send their three aces to the mound, but at least they've still got Porcello and Sale.

"It's no coincidence that he's been one of the top left-handed pitchers in the game and it was the same when David [Price] came over and I first started playing with David," Porcello said. "Those guys are at the top of their game for a reason and it's how hard they work, how hard they prepare. That was the first thing I noticed."

Sale wants to impress his new fans, who impressed him over the winter, but he's got bigger goals. This is his eighth season, but he has yet to reach the playoffs.

"I'm as excited as anybody, honestly," he said. "I don't know how you couldn't be. You're in the annual running for making the playoffs and have a realistic chance for winning the World Series. I think the group of guys, I've always heard great things about the guys on this team, the front office. You have dedicated ownership and front  office guys dedicated to winning annually. So it's exciting. I've always, always loved going to Boston, pitching in Boston. It's a trip my wife comes on every year as well. We both really like the city and the stadium. Obviously, it's a very special place.

"That's kind of the cherry on top. You look at the talent on this team as a whole – not only just the pitching staff but as a whole – you've got some young guys, you obviously have a veteran leader and one of the best in the game in [Dustin] Pedroia leading the charge, you can't ask for much more. You have guys in the bullpen who can lock it down.  On paper, it looks good. I know we've still got to go out there and do it, but there's no reason not to be excited right now.

"You just walk in here and see all the banners. We've got a lot of banners here. I'd like to add to that. You can just feel what this team is about."