Chris Sale will pitch against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium on Sunday. It will feel like a stage and a setting worthy of him and the year he is having for the Red Sox, one in which he's become more an ace than anybody in baseball: Sale Day in New York this time. We talk a lot about the young hitting stars of baseball, starting with the season that Jose Altuve is having for the Astros. It is easy to forget sometimes that Sale is still just a year older than Altuve, in the baseball summer when he has been striking out the world, and turned his starts into events. It means main events.
The rate at which he strikes hitters out has put him in a class with Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez at their best. Johnson once got to 200 strikeouts in 143 innings and Pedro did it in 147. Sale did it for the Red Sox after 141 1/3. Going into Sunday's start against the Yankees, Sale has struck out 229 hitters in 161 1/3 innings. In his last start, against the Rays, not so far from where he became a college star for Dave Tollett at Florida Gulf Coast University, he struck out 13 in eight innings before giving way to Craig Kimbrel, who finished off the night by striking out the side in the ninth, almost as if he owed that to Sale.
Tollett was at the game. A couple of days later he said, "Listen, I'm a little biased because he was ours. But I think he's now the best pitcher in baseball."
Tollett saw enough in Sale when he was a kid to be the only college coach to offer him a scholarship. "Maybe, and I mean maybe, he saw a kid who weighed 155 pounds at the time," Tollett said of the 6-foot-6 Sale. But he also saw a kid who could go along for a whole game throwing 80-to-82 miles per hour and then suddenly, almost out of the sky, go up to 88 or 89.
"He wouldn't show it to you a lot," Tollett said. "But he'd show it to you. Even then, I loved watching him pitch."
But if there is a legend to Chris Sale, and what he has become in his sport, it really began the summer between his freshman and sophomore year at FGCU, in 2008, when he pitched for the La Crosse (Wisc.) Loggers in the Northwoods League. He was managed by Andy McKay, now the head of player development for the Mariners. His pitching coach was Derek Tate, once a left-handed pitching prospect for the Blue Jays before his elbow exploded on him. The hitting coach on the team was Greg Vaughn, who'd once hit 50 home runs in a season for the Padres, and hit more than 40 for the Reds.
"All three of us watched Chris pitch," Tate, who'd just started college coaching at the University of San Francisco, his alma mater, said. "But at the time, he was just another guy. There were 15 other pitchers on the roster, and he didn't stand out by any means. Even then, though, you could see there was a high ceiling there. We all felt it was a matter of time before he would figure things out."
They helped him in La Crosse by slightly lowering his arm angle, to what you see now with Chris Sale, what Tate calls a "lower three-quarters slot." The change in his mechanics didn't change everything for Sale overnight. But what he has become now he started to become that summer in Wisconsin. He would put on weight when he got back to FGCU, a Division II program that became D-1 after Tollett got there. The summer after La Crosse, he was pitching, ironically enough, for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod Summer League. Sale got stronger, on his way to eventually becoming Collegiate Player of the Year. Suddenly, the ball seemed as if it were coming at batters from everywhere.
Tate was asked about the people who still sound concerned about what they describe as all the moving parts in Sale's delivery. He laughed.
"I have never understood what they're talking about," he said.
Tate followed Sale back to Florida Gulf Coast and became Tollett's pitching coach. He says that he could see the real transformation the fall of Sale's sophomore year. Because of the kid's class schedule, he would throw in the morning to Tate, who began to not just see the change in Sale's velocity, but feel it.
"Before long we were all thinking the same thing," he said. "This was a kid with first-round pick written all over him."
"Best scholarship I've ever offered," Tollett said. "It's been a joy to watch him become this kind of pitcher. But the best part about Chris Sale is that the character has remained the same. We were talking one time and he said how much he loved seeing his old teammates from our college team, and how they haven't changed. I looked at him and said, 'You've got this whole thing turned around. It's you who hasn't changed.'"
"It's funny when I think about that summer in La Crosse," Tate said. "The one thing I saw with this kid was that he just needed to have a baseball in his hand every day. He just still hadn't had enough experience being a throwing athlete."
Sale is some throwing athlete now. Twice Randy Johnson had 23 10-strikeout games in a season. Sale now has 15 for the Red Sox. The other night against the Rays, as he was striking out 13 more hitters, he walked just one of them. His current record is 14-4, and it should be better than that, because there have been too many games this season when the Red Sox, who've found a lot of offense lately, didn't produce very much of it for him.
There was a Saturday afternoon at Fenway against the Yankees when Sale left the game ahead, 1-0. Kimbrel gave up a home run to Matt Holliday in the ninth, and the Yankees ended up winning in 16 innings. Masahiro Tanaka beat Sale 3-0 at Fenway in April, on a night when Sale still struck out 10. Sale gets another shot at the Yankees on Sunday, this time in the big room in the Bronx.
He doesn't tweet. He doesn't want to talk between starts. He just wants to pitch. The earned run average is currently 2.57. For all the things that have happened to the Red Sox and Yankees so far this season, the ultimate difference between the two teams -- especially in a season when the 2016 Cy Young Award winner for the Red Sox, Rick Porcello, is 6-14 -- has been Sale. Even after the way he pitched for the White Sox, who took him with the 13th pick of the first round of the 2010 Draft, this is the high ceiling that Tollett saw, and Tate saw, even when Sale was finding himself as a tall, skinny teenager, a long way from home.
"He'd gotten so upset with the way he was pitching for us [in La Crosse], which means that he wasn't pitching better," Tate said. "He came up to me one night and said, 'Coach, I got so frustrated last night that I almost drove home.' I looked at him and said, 'Chris, don't you live in Florida?'"
Tate, who now runs a baseball high school prep program called the Ball Club Bruins in San Francisco, says he loves telling that story.
"Pretty sure he's glad he stayed," Tate said. "So are we."
Sale is five years younger than Max Scherzer. He is a year younger than Clayton Kershaw. Three years younger than the Indians' ace, Corey Kluber. Again and again: so many young stars in baseball. Not one a bigger star than Chris Sale right now, not Altuve or Mike Trout or Bryce Harper or Aaron Judge or Cody Bellinger or anybody. Still that low arm slot, all the way out of a baseball summer in Wisconsin when things began to change for him, for good. Ceiling as high as ever.