BOSTON — As ominous as it is to pay a visit to Dr. James Andrews, Chris Sale never felt too concerned.
Speaking publicly about his injured elbow for the first time since he was placed on the injured list, Sale said he received encouraging news from Andrews on Monday.
“We got some better news,” Sale said. “Obviously not great news, but about as good as we could get.”
Sale was asked directly if Andrews assured him there was no damage to his ulnar collateral ligament in his throwing elbow and said yes.
He was then asked directly if he was sure there was no tear, and again Sale said yes.
“There was inflammation,” Sale said, confirming the original diagnosis.
Never was Sale concerned that Tommy John surgery would be necessary. His elbow has never bothered him until after the Cleveland start last Tuesday, when it felt stiff and never loosened up.
“I didn’t feel terrible,” Sale said. “It wasn’t anything overwhelming to me. I was actually pretty optimistic the entire time so yeah, just kind of came out of my start against Cleveland, felt a little tight, did some testing and they wanted to do the MRI to make sure. And then after the MRI, wanted to go see someone that knows everything about it.”
Sale received a platelet-rich plasma injection that should begin the healing process, though he will be shut down six weeks and is out for the season.
“We got a few dead days here for the next couple days, then get back on some shoulder strengthening, some forearm strengthening, then start getting ready for a throwing program,” he said.
Manager Alex Cora said that even if the Red Sox make the postseason, “it’s going to be almost impossible” for Sale to recover in time to pitch again.
The lefty is eyeing a return in 2020.
Until then, he and the Red Sox need to figure out what went wrong this season.
One question that remains is about his shoulder, which suffered from inflammation last fall and left him feeling a bit strange in spring training, when he first started adjusting his mechanics. But he never complained about his shoulder and has said all along that he’s healthy.
Still, his mechanics continued to be altered throughout the season.
“Obviously I think we’ve got some things to look at as a whole and try to figure out if there was something that I was doing different,” he said. “But if anything, I felt like I was back to normal the last few starts, which was encouraging. Then this happens.”
Is it possible he was overcompensating for the shoulder issues and that might’ve led to the 2 mph loss in velocity and eventually a stiff elbow?
“Not from where I sit,” he said. “This is kind of just one of those things that just kind of came up. No real rhyme or reason.”
At 30 years old, Sale is at the age when starting pitchers often show signs of slowing down and are more prone to injuries. This kind of thing happens all the time.
In Los Angeles, the Dodgers just went through this with Clayton Kershaw, who has missed time with shoulder inflammation this year. He’s always averaged 93 to 94 mph on his fastball but averaged just 91 mph last year and 90 mph this year. Kershaw, though, is still dominant, with a 2.53 ERA in 137 innings this year.
Jake Arrieta was a Cy Young winner in 2015 at age 29, averaging 95 mph on his fastball. Two years later, he was down to 93 mph and he hasn’t been nearly as successful since. Now he has bone spurs in his elbow.
Justin Verlander famously regained his velocity in Houston after losing 2 mph on his fastball in Detroit at age 31. At 36, he continues to be a Cy Young contender with the Astros.
The over-30 conundrum with starting pitchers is why the Red Sox originally shied away from Jon Lester. But Red Sox owner John Henry said this spring that he didn’t want to make the same mistake and let Sale walk in free agency. The Sox then signed Sale to a five-year extension worth $145 million.
“I just think you look at any pitcher in the big leagues, there’s going to be some times where they have a down year, they get hurt, especially as the workload picks up and you start racking up some innings,” Sale said. “It’s just the culmination of a lot of things coming to the front right now.”
The good news for Sale is he’ll avoid Tommy John and, if he commits to the strength-building exercises and his body responds well, should be ready to roll in 2020.
“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “It could be worse. That’s the mindset I’m going to take through this. It can always be worse.”