Chris Sale sat at his makeshift locker in the Red Sox' makeshift clubhouse in London ready to reflect. In just more than a week, he would be watching the All-Star Game from home for the first time in eight years. The rearview mirror had never been a more welcome notion.
This all hadn't been part of Sale's blueprint. New plans needed to be drawn up, for the player and his team.
"I’ve seen what playing terrible looks like and it’s not this," Sale said in the early-morning conversation with WEEI.com. "We just have to click. It’s something away from rolling. It’s exciting knowing we are going to get some time off, regroup and come back and say, ‘OK, we’re starting from scratch, 0-0. Don’t look at your numbers. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what you’re hitting. It doesn’t matter what your ERA is. It doesn’t matter. All that stuff is out the window. Let’s start from here going forward and let’s see where we go because we have a chance to win another World Series. It doesn’t matter how you get there, you just have to get there. Get your foot in the door and see what happen."
Never before has Sale needed the first three months of a season to be put in the past like this year.
The Red Sox are two games out of a Wild Card spot, sitting nine games in back of first-place New York with a 49-41 record. Not what they expected.
Sale is 3-8 with a 4.04 ERA with his team going 6-12 in his starts. Not what he expected.
In fact, the only thing that had gone as Sale had hoped was the one thing that was thought to represent the most uncertainty heading into 2019 -- a new contract.
"I was going to great lengths to not make that happen, for multiple reasons," he said regarding the prospect of performing in the final year of a contract. "Whatever team am I going to play for that gives me what I truly want in life and in baseball? I get to live in my house in spring training. I get to take my son to school. Watch his games. See my kids grow up. Sleep in my own bed. Be with my family for basically 2 1/2 extra months. I get to play in Boston for a team that is going to perennially make a run for it and if it isn’t it is going to be a quick fix. What else could you ask for? There are certain situations that I just would not have gone into. There are certain teams that I just knew it wasn’t going to happen The funnel gets smaller and smaller. It’s either this team, that team or this team. And you start thinking, ’No, I like it here. I have my roots here. I want to be here.’
"I’ve said it my entire career, I’m not a businessman. I hate the business aspect of baseball. I’ve played this game since before I can remember. My first memory of baseball was years after I started playing. It was never a driving force. I wanted to become a Major League Baseball player because I wanted to become Major League Baseball player. Not for fame or fortune or whatever. It just suits me better. I have an agent that takes care of all of that and financial people who do all the different stuff and that allows me to just go out and play baseball. If I’m sitting there in the fourth inning thinking about a 2-2 pitch and thinking if I don’t do this or that … That’s no way to play baseball. I grab the ball, I throw it until they take it from me and I compete as hard as I can in between and whatever happens, happens."
And so the five-year, $145 million extension was agreed upon in late March. But that's when normalcy left the building.
After the first six starts Sale's ERA sat at 6.30. Then the next eight outings resurfaced the usual dominance, with the starter reemerging as one of the best pitchers in baseball with a 1.99 ERA and .153 batting average against. Now we have the most recent three appearances. Not great. It is a span that has resulted in a 7.02 ERA and opponents batting average of .314.
Never before has he had to rely on so much in order to find his way.
More coaches. More video. More technology.
"Coming out of spring training obviously was terrible. My first handful of starts was probably the worst stretch I had ever been on in my life," Sale said. "When you go through something like that you’re going to be looking for any possible advantage. Luckily we have so many things we can go to, turn to. Different people. Instruments. Technology. Numbers.
"You can’t just keep going out there doing the same thing and expecting a different result. At a certain point and time there is a breaking point where you have to adjust. You have to say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ Everything was fine. I was just misfiring. My angle was different. My arm action was different. My path was different. My rotation. It was almost a completely different person. I was showing the ball more. I looked the same by the naked eye but if you put it into where I was, this is a game of inches and I was inches off."
So, how realistic is it that there is another run for Sale around the corner?
The good news for the pitcher and the club is that the shoulder issue that derailed his season in 2018 doesn't seem to be part of the conversation. We wanted to lean on the excuse when trying to explain away that first month, and the tendency has returned for this recent downturn. But Sale says you would be wasting your time entering any sort of physical limitations into the 2019 conversation.
"It’s my body. And that’s the natural thing, is everyone kind of panics fo a little bit," he said. "Pitching a certain way to feel a certain way then you create a bad habit which affects you when you’re good. It’s just getting back to the normal flow of things and trying not to suck."
That last sentence ... the mantra for the Red Sox and perhaps their most important pitcher.