The Red Sox have not lacked for veteran leadership this season, whether it's J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts pacing the offense, Matt Barnes setting a tone in the bullpen, or Nathan Eovaldi fronting a surprisingly effective rotation.
When it comes to leaders, however, few set a better example than Chris Sale. And as the ace left-hander prepares to make his first rehab start this weekend in Fort Myers in the hopes of rejoining the rotation sooner rather than later, it's worth considering what his return could mean not just from an on-field perspective, but a clubhouse one as well.
"Obviously we've been waiting for this for a long time," chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said recently on "Talkin' Baseball."
"Hopefully at some point we're ready to activate him and fit him into our rotation. We're not going to have to trouble finding a spot for Chris Sale. Now, if we're still in a position like we are now where the good fortune and good work we've had with our health is continuing and we have a tough decision on our hands, that's OK. That's never a problem to have more guys than spots. We'd love to always have that problem and we'll be ready when it comes."
Sale cuts an imposing figure on the mound at 6-foot-6, with a wingspan that long ago earned him the nickname "The Condor." He's an equally important presence behind the scenes, where his intensity and professionalism set a tone for more than just the pitching staff.
There's a reason the Red Sox handled Sale the ball to record the final three outs of the 2018 World Series, even though he wasn't 100 percent. As the best pitcher on the best team in baseball, they felt he had earned the right to close things out, and when he dropped Manny Machado to one knee for the clinching strike three, it was mission accomplished.
But the issues that plagued him late that season carried over into 2019, and in March of 2020, after exhausting all hopes for a natural recovery, he underwent Tommy John surgery. He has been rehabbing ever since, with early setbacks that included a bout with COVID slowing his progress.
He has been gathering momentum for months now, though, and if all goes well in Thursday's two-inning rookie league start, he'll be one day closer to rejoining a team that believes he could be a difference-maker in the chase for a World Series title.
"We have a plan in place to prepare us and we have a backup plan in place in case there are setbacks, but it's normal," pitching coach Dave Bush said recently. "Almost everybody somewhere along the way has a game or an outing where they don't feel great and they have to take a step back and then rebuild a little bit.
"For some of the other guys who had surgery around the same time as Chris, their setbacks have been recent. Chris dealt with it a little more early on and he's been moving along pretty good lately."
Sale last threw a pitch that mattered in August 2019 vs. the Cleveland Indians. Francisco Lindor ripped it down the left field line for a two-run double. The 16 months since have been a miasma of starts and stops, dashed hopes and despair.
Now, as Sale's return draws near, the Red Sox are starting to allow themselves to a ponder life with him fronting their rotation, just like old times.
"We know what Chris Sale, when he's 100 percent looks like," Bloom said recently. "He's one of the best pitchers in the game."