Chris Sale lights it up in first spring training start

JUPITER, Fla. -- It took only a few pitches in his first start of spring training for Chris Sale to light up the radar gun with readings of 96 and 97 mph.

"I looked up and I told [bench coach] Ron [Roenicke], 'Well, [so much] for everything we talked about holding back,'" Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora said Friday with a laugh.

There's a reason the Red Sox waited until almost the third week of the Grapefruit League schedule to have Sale make his debut. It's all part of the team's plan to build up its ace lefty's arm strength more gradually in an attempt to keep him from fading again in the final two months of a season.

So, after Sale struck out Miami Marlins first baseman Justin Bour to cap a 13-pitch first inning and walked off the mound, pitching coach Dana LeVangie met him in the dugout and offered a simple suggestion: Tone it down.

"We kind of came to that together," Sale said. "I was just like, 'Hey, it's hard for me.' It's not easy to go out there and, not dial it back but kind of trust the process. You get out there for the first time against a different team in a different stadium and you get going. You want to go out there and compete. At the same time, you've got to know what the end goal is, and we're working towards that."

If you didn't know better, you might think Sale had such a horrible season last year that he needed to overhaul his approach. But he went 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA, led the big leagues in innings (214.1) and strikeouts (308) and was runner-up in the American League Cy Young Award voting. As Red Sox debut seasons go, it was reminiscent of Pedro Martinez in 1998.

Yet Sale has made so many references to his "process" this spring that you might think his interviews are being scripted by Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid. Sale believes he wasted too many heaters in spring training and early in the season and didn't have enough left in the proverbial tank for August and September. The result: He gave up 14 homers in his final 51 innings, including three in five innings against the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the division series, and posted a 4.30 ERA in his last eight regular-season starts.

It was beside the point, then, that Sale completed four walk-free innings in 58 pitches against the Marlins. Or that he finished the second and third innings with back-to-back strikeouts. Or that he allowed one run on two hits and struck out five batters.

The important part was that Sale took a productive step on the path to what is expected to be an Opening Day start on March 29 against the Tampa Bay Rays.

"I know from the outside it might seem weird or be off a little bit," Sale said of making changes to a routine that has worked well throughout his career. "But I have 100 percent trust in our coaching staff, our training staff, our strength coaches, everyone involved in this entire process. This isn't just me coming to spring training and building up and doing whatever. These guys know what they're doing. They've been around, and I trust them."

Sale is expected to remain on a five-day schedule, which would line him up for the first game of the season.

Cora has not yet named an Opening Day starter. But after finally seeing him pitch in a Grapefruit League game, the new manager liked the look of his ace.

"It's a lot cooler to be in the same dugout than on the other side," Cora said. "Very intense. He was excellent. For everything we worked for early in camp, to see him go out there and perform that way makes you feel a lot better."