Chris Sale's February bullpen session lasted about 30 pitches to backup Jonathan Lucroy, who had just signed that morning.
Save for one crisp fastball, Sale didn't exactly pop the mitt, and the conspicuous sleeve on his left arm screamed, "This guy's hurt."
But even an amateur pitching coach could understand the significance as Lucroy emerged from his crouch following Sale's final pitch and made his way to the mound outside the Red Sox clubhouse, behind a giant mural of franchise legends, where Sale readied a high-five with a giant smile.
"Huh," I remember thinking, standing off to the side. "Maybe he's actually OK."
Insert that awful Family Feud buzzer noise and a giant X over my face, because here we go.
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On Tuesday, the Red Sox announced that Sale experienced soreness in his left elbow following Sunday's 15-pitch live BP and underwent an MRI. The results will be sent to Dr. James Andrews, the noted orthopedist who played guardian angel last fall when he prescribed Sale rest rather than surgery, but could very easily become the angel of death now.
No player ever chooses surgery if it can be avoided, but man, oh man, what a second guess the Red Sox and Sale will face if he undergoes Tommy John surgery that costs him all of 2020 and probably most of 2021, too. Had the same procedure been performed last fall, Sale at least would've been a go for next year's opener.
We haven't reached that point yet -- maybe it's just scar tissue, or an abundance of caution, or blah blah blah -- but what already looked like a rough season is turning into an absolute nightmare.
If Red Sox sources anonymously leak that Sale's injury isn't considered serious, we shouldn't believe them. If they express cautious optimism, we should ignore them. If they say they'll reevaluate in two weeks and remain hopeful, we should roll our eyes.
Surgery felt inevitable the day the Red Sox officially shut Sale down last August, and the fear of it no longer needs to crouch in the sewers of our minds like Pennywise. It now stands front and center with a red balloon, baring its fangs and sneering that we all float.
Sale's importance to the 2020 Red Sox can't be overstated. If they have any prayer of overcoming the odds and making a postseason run, Sale not only needs to stay healthy, but to pitch like an ace in a rotation that could feature two openers in his absence. The Red Sox haven't been this thin since their halcyon "Five Aces" days of 2015, the first time in history that five in fact equaled zero.
Now that possibility looks increasingly remote, and Sale's five-year, $145 million contract extension hasn't even kicked in yet. That means he could torpedo the team's fortunes not only this year, but for multiple seasons to come.
What a disaster.
The Red Sox have already lost fans over the way they handled the departure of Mookie Betts, and now they're going to face renewed questions over (a) their decision to extend Sale last spring despite the fact that he was coming off an injury, and (b) their refusal to consider surgery last fall when it could've maybe salvaged 2021.
Now they face the worst of both worlds -- an overpaid ace whose career could be in jeopardy at exactly the moment when the team needs him most.
This outcome was easily foreseen. Sale's makeup, fortitude, desire, and leadership are beyond reproach. But his body and delivery are not.
He has been considered a prime breakdown candidate for years, but the Red Sox ignored the warning signs anyway. Ownership can blame departed baseball boss Dave Dombrowski all it wants, but John Henry was gushing about his desire to sign Sale long-term only last spring, and he signed off on the deal.
Now the Red Sox face a potentially ruinous outcome before their season even starts.
"Once they hand me the ball, I'll throw it until they take it from me," Sale told reporters recently. "That's all I can do."
He couldn't even survive some live BP to a couple of Triple-A hitters on Sunday without needing an MRI. So much for that high-five and smile. It's hard to escape the feeling Boston's already fading hopes for 2020 are about to go pitch black.