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Now comes the unveiling, the first opportunity to see Chris Sale pitching in a Red Sox uniform at Fenway Park, to marvel at the sprawl of limbs that precedes the unleashing of some of the most overpowering stuff in the majors. The novelty of one of the game’s best pitchers and the distinctiveness of how he delivers the ball will occupy the spotlight.
That delivery is the object of frustration to many a hitter, the foundation of Sale’s dominance. Yet for the pitcher, it is also something more: It represents the pivot point that saved his career.
In the summer of 2008, a skinny-as-a-rail Sale – then listed at 6-foot-6 and 172 pounds – followed his freshman year at Florida Gulf Coast University by joining the La Crosse (Wisc.) Loggers of the Northwoods League. At the time, he worked from a relatively conventional three-quarters arm slot. His stuff was entirely pedestrian.
“You don’t know he’s going to become one of the best pitchers in the big leagues,” recalled Derek Tate , Sale’s pitching coach that summer in La Crosse. “He was just one of the 15 or 16 pitchers we had on our staff that summer. He’s another guy in the group that you’re trying to help, and you’re trying to teach them to forget about some of the poor outings, to learn from them, put the work in, and move on.”
Tate, who was hired by the end of that summer to be FGCU pitching coach, where he continued working with Sale in his sophomore and junior year, recalled Sale working at just 82-83 miles per hour with little stamina for a reliever’s workload. Frustration mounted to the point that the lefthander considered giving up.
“He couldn’t pick up a baseball and throw an inning without the next day not being able to touch a baseball. He was so stiff. His body just wasn’t in throwing shape. He’d never gone through the regimen that a college athlete goes through to prepare themselves to be out there on a regular basis,” said Tate. “He was pitching middle relief innings for us the first half of that summer. He was actually struggling to find results. There was even a day in the middle of that summer where he came to me before the game. He was so frustrated, he said, ‘Coach, I almost drove home last night.’
“We’re in Wisconsin. I looked at him and said, ‘Don’t you live in Florida?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘It’s a long drive, man. Why don’t you stick around for a day or two and try to figure this out.’”
Thus began a transformative period of a couple of weeks in which Sale didn’t pitch in games. Instead, during a period when he worked on building his strength and flexibility to improve his durability, the lefthander also proved open-minded to a fairly radical change in his delivery.
“I wasn’t doing very well with what I was doing at the time. I had to change something up,” said Sale. “One of my teammates in the summer league had done it and had some success. I said, ‘Hey, let’s give it a whirl and see what we’ve got.’”
Sale found comfort in a low three-quarters arm slot almost immediately, particularly with his fastball and changeup command. His slider proved more inconsistent, but once every handful of pitches, Tate recalled, he’d spin a beauty that served as a harbinger of the unhittable breaking ball he now features. Meanwhile, his strength gains and newfound understanding of a need for a between-outings routine permitted him to build arm strength, velocity, and stamina.
When Sale returned to the mound, he started to take on a growing workload – first out of the bullpen, then eventually in the La Crosse rotation. He looked and acted like a different pitcher, one with a clearer sense of possibility in front of him.
“You’d see a little bit of inconsistency with the command and velocity, but you’d see it improving from one outing to the next. His confidence was attached to it,” said Tate. “By the end of that summer, his confidence was really starting to pick up some steam. When we went back to school that fall, he was starting to think about himself in a different way. You could see that the way he carried himself had completely changed.”
He found the delivery that would permit him to succeed, and when he returned to FGCU in the fall, Sale’s work in the weight room allowed him to build velocity seemingly every week.
“Everything changed for him in a great way,” said Tate.
Sale emerged in his sophomore year as a standout in the FGCU rotation, and by his junior year, he was the best college pitcher in the country, status that resulted in his first-round selection by the White Sox and a fast track to the big leagues in less than two months. He has known only dominance since that summer of 2008, emerging as one of the most prized pitchers in the game and convincing the Red Sox to place an enormous bet on his potential as a difference-maker in the pursuit of a title.
It is for that reason that Sale will tower when he takes the mound in a Red Sox uniform tonight. But his place there would not have been possible but for a challenging summer that nearly convinced him to quit as a 19-year-old.
“Any time you can struggle and figure out who you are and what you’re doing – not just baseball but in general, everything – I think you figure out more when you struggle than when you have success,” said Sale. “That was important to me.”
So was the decision to stay in La Crosse. It would appear that Sale made the right decision in doing so.
“For now,” he smiled.