PORTLAND, Maine. — The Portland Sea Dogs haven't seen a scene like it in years.
For the first time since September of 2019 before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, Hadlock Stadium welcomed a sold-out, full-capacity crowd of 7,368 fans. Undeterred by a mid-afternoon thunderstorm that dumped torrential rain across the city before the game, local fans packed the stands to get a close up look at the man of the hour.
And amid all that hype, Chris Sale delivered.
The Red Sox ace looked like his old self on Tuesday, pitching 3 2/3 scoreless, hitless innings in a rehab start against the Harrisburg Senators in his latest step towards a return from Tommy John surgery.
"Today was a good day, definitely a step in the right direction," Sale said afterwards. "I felt good throughout the entire game, even in the third and fourth inning going back out there I felt like I was able to create some arm speed and make pitches when I need to, which at this stage of the game is key."
Sale threw 49 pitches, 34 for strikes, while consistently touching the mid-90s on his fastball, including a 98 mph heater in the first inning. Sale's off-speed pitches were on point too, with the lefty recording six strikeouts thanks in large part to a filthy slider that repeatedly made Harrisburg's Double-A hitters look foolish. He allowed only two baserunners, one on a walk and the other on an error.
Though Sale does not know when or where his next rehab start will be, a return to the big leagues is likely sometime in August, and that prospect doesn't only have Portland buzzing. Red Sox manager Alex Cora has said this past week that excitement is building within the big league clubhouse, and there is a general sense throughout the organization that Sale could provide the spark the club needs to contend for a World Series title.
If we are only a couple of weeks away from Sale's activation, it's been a long time coming.
Sale hasn't pitched in the big leagues since Aug. 13, 2019 due to an elbow injury, and after an offseason of rest and recovery proved insufficient Sale underwent Tommy John surgery in late March of 2020, weeks after the outbreak of the pandemic.
Since then it's been rest, rehab, treatment and work,
"I didn't exactly have rainbows and butterflies at the front end of this rehab process and having my teammates text me or call me, once they got to spring training, even [Cora], going up to Boston for the month of April, it wasn't a necessity but he knew I needed it," Sale said. "He knew I needed to be around the guys, he knew I needed to be in that baseball atmosphere and that did wonders for me.
"As excited as they are for me to be there, I'm probably more excited to be around them," he added. "They help me more than they know."
But prior to his injury the seven-time all-star ranked among the best pitchers in baseball for nearly a decade, and his first two seasons in Boston were two of the best by a Red Sox pitcher in team history.
Sale went 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA with 308 strikeouts his first year in 2017, and the following year he was 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA with 237 strikeouts, playing a crucial role in leading the Red Sox to a franchise-record 108 wins.
He'd go on to appear in five games in the 2018 postseason, starting three games — including a win in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Yankees — before recording the final outs in Game 5 of the World Series against the Dodgers to clinch the team's fourth title since 2004.
Now imagine adding that version of Sale to this year's first-place club?
The Red Sox starting pitching has exceeded expectations this summer, with Nathan Eovaldi even earning his first trip to the All-Star Game, but the rotation does not currently have a true ace like Sale. Yet with the big lefty in tow the Red Sox would boast a one-two punch of Sale and Eovaldi rivaling anyone else in baseball.
Add in some combination of Eduardo Rodriguez, Nick Pivetta, Martin Perez, Garrett Richards and Tanner Houck to fill out the staff behind them, and it's hard not to get excited about Boston's chances in October.