The face looked a little older, the eyes a little narrower, the beard a little thicker. But the presence was unmistakably Chris Sale.
The Red Sox left-hander hadn't toed the rubber for real in two years and one day when he stepped to the mound on Saturday afternoon under mostly sunny skies at Fenway Park. The 4 o'clock start time meant shadows across the infield, perhaps none more striking than the one cast by Sale's reedy 6-foot-6 frame, a spectral version of the 32-year-old that drifted off the back of the mound and onto the grass.
Sale didn't exactly pitch like he had stepped out of a time machine -- after a fast start, he allowed a couple of home runs, and he mostly sat at 93-94 mph -- but he wasn't really rusty, either. What mattered far more than the five innings and eight strikeouts in a 16-2 victory over the Orioles were the possibilities.
For Sale, the last two years of doubt and questions and rehab were finally rewarded. Surgery yielded to drudgery in March of 2020, and though Sale loved the extra time with his family in Fort Myers, he has always believed he was put on this earth to do throw a baseball. The Red Sox had rewarded him with a five-year contract extension that officially kicked in just months going under the knife. Sale believes in earning his pay, and cashing checks from the sidelines did not sit well with value system.
So in that sense, returning to the hill in the heart of a pennant race gave Sale a chance to start justifying that investment while reminding teammates, fans, and the front office that a rotation fronted by this giant condor should be formidable in 2022 and beyond.
That's later. For the Red Sox, they initially had hoped to add Sale to their pennant chase as a pure bonus, but changing circumstances made it clear that Sale's return could make or break their season. Both chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and manager Alex Cora told anyone who would listen throughout July that no move they made at the trade deadline could equal the impact of Sale. "I think that skinny left-handed pitcher coming in a few weeks or a month will help," Cora noted on July 29.
When July 30 came and went with less help than expected, the Red Sox entered a funk that suddenly turned Sale from a complement to a savior. That's a lot of pressure to put on any pitcher, let alone one coming off major reconstructive surgery.
But Sale answered the call on Saturday. Besides back to back solo homers in the third and a handful of infield hits, Sale controlled the Orioles. He started with a rising 94 mph fastball to Austin Hays that was fouled back for a strike, and he finished with a sinker that Trey Mancini grounded to short. His fastball touched 96 mph, his slider found the back of the right-handed batter's box, and his changeup sent the Orioles fishing. He threw 89 pitches and 60 strikes.
He left the mound to a huge ovation, the Fenway fans recognizing the personal significance of the moment, and also what it could mean for their team. The Red Sox need a reason to believe that they're better than the last two weeks and leave it to the big left-hander to give it to them.
It took two years and no shortage of patience, but Chris Sale is back. The rest of the 2021 season starts today.