BOSTON -- The Chris Sale Project could become a blueprint.
Spring training in September. Shoot for October, not hardware.
If this build-up plan works — a big if — a 2018 World Series title for the Red Sox may eventually be traced to a strange, single-inning outing in September, and to a team's willingness to do something different.
The Sox arrived on this path partly out of necessity, because Sale is recovering from left shoulder bursitis. Nonetheless, they are displaying some ingenuity as he rehabs.
They're acting with a combination of caution — keeping Sale shut down as long as they have — and risk, because Sale could still feel rusty come October. They're threading the needle between freshness and preparedness, while simultaneously throwing the usual adherence to routine to the wind.
We know how the results will be received: If Sale gets crushed in the playoffs, the Sox are morons. If he dominates, they're geniuses.
But Sale's second-half dips from the past are evidence enough that there was reason to try something new. Give credit to the Sox for being willing to go beyond the oft-cited slow build-up from March and April. They're remixing that song for September now, too.
Sale returned from the disabled list on Tuesday and threw 26 pitches in the first inning of a 7-2 win over the Blue Jays. The team's hope was he would go two innings in game, but 40 pitches was the limit. Manager Alex Cora didn’t want to pull Sale in the middle of the second inning. So Sale finished the outing, so to speak, throwing in the ‘pen.
“I think he just felt out of sync all the way around,” Cora said. “That’s why he’s out there. He’s getting ready. He’ll be ready to pitch on Sunday and hopefully he’s going to be better.”
The lefty worked around a leadoff double, and still struck out two.
“A little erratic obviously, drove my pitch count up a little bit,” Sale said. “But I got some good work in and move on from there. … I was just trying to throw strikes, it was my first time back out there in awhile, sped up a little bit on me. Felt like I was kind of rushing a little bit, kind of got out of some of the things I need to do to stay on top of things."
If all goes well, Sale will be throwing about six or seven innings come his planned start on Sept. 26. He’ll be sharper as time passes, ideally. His next planned start is Sunday.
How he recovers from Tuesday’s start and subsequent starts may be most telling as to the state of his bursitis. When he’s felt the discomfort, it’s been after pitching, not during.
But say there are no major hiccups and Sale rips through the postseason. Say he looks the opposite of his 2017 self, believed to simply be worn down as the Sox were knocked out in the first round. The Sox may someday be shown to have found an October edge they needed, and one other teams constantly seek. A change that helped unleash the best pitcher in the American League at full force in the playoffs.
Again, the choice to keep Sale out would be more bold were Sale not dealing with the bursitis. If the Sox simply said, you’re healthy, you’re not pitching. But there's at least some element of that here. If Sale had to pitch sooner, he likely could have, by all indications. And he may be letting a chance at a Cy Young award slip away by agreeing to come back slowly.
Clubs will be watching this experiment. Have a division lead, have an ace? The Sale Project may prove instructive for other organizations down the line: injured or not, shut that arm down and build it back up.
It’s a luxury few teams can afford, maybe one or two a season. But in a sport where advantages are rare, the Red Sox’ ingenuity with their ace will be watched closely. Particularly if it works.