Our intensely regional nightmare may soon be at an end. After a short but positive bullpen session held Tuesday, the White Sox are in the process of pegging a return date for Chris Sale. An imminent one.
"Sale felt good as he participated in a light bullpen session on Tuesday and now the White Sox will wait to see how their two-time All-Star feels before they make a decision on the next step.
But if Sale, who threw roughly 20 pitches in Tuesday’s session, responds well, the White Sox could decide to start him in the team’s upcoming series at home against the New York Yankees."
If Sale indeed comes back for the weekend series against the Yankees, he will wind up having missed approximately five weeks of game action, after his April 17 start in which he threw a career-high 127 pitches on a cold night. Instead of a singularly questionable decision in a season where any manager has to make dozens, "127 pitches" has been the footnote to Sale's status for five weeks. In the immediate wake, neither Sale nor Robin was lending much credence to it.
"Sale finished the game with a career-high 127 pitches, though he and manager Robin Ventura didn't sound concerned about the elevated pitch total."
Four days later, when Sale was being announced to the DL, Rick Hahn couched the move as akin to the precautionary longer rests given to Sale in previous years. I thought was perhaps overstating his positioning in my memory, but no, he really went for it.
"'There's certainly at this point no reason to believe it's going to linger beyond the 15 days,' Hahn said. 'We could have tried to push him back a few days and a decent chance he would have been able to take the ball maybe against Tampa Bay. Again, it's not worth it.'"
That 15-day plan must have taken a beaten over the next five to six days. On April 17, six days from when Sale would be returning, the Sox were still waiting on the first meaningful step of the rehab process to take place before they could begin to give a projection.
"Sale is eligible to come off the DL this weekend in Cleveland, but White Sox manager Robin Ventura said that unless the left-hander shows he can take part in significant baseball activity over the next three days, he may have to sit out longer.
'We're not just going to send him out there if he hasn't thrown and we're not 100 percent positive he's okay,' Ventura said. 'I would say he'd have to do something in the next three days. Nothing on the schedule [for a rehab assignment] right now. We're just trying to make sure he feels good.'"
Things are obviously worse than initially anticipated at this point, since the Sox should have a good idea when Sale is pitching next but instead don't know when he can move beyond catch. After a pair of throwing sessions over the weekend that Sale was originally scheduled to retun, the decision that he needs to have a rehab start came out on April 30.
"'When he keeps throwing, you hear feedback that he gives,' said Ventura of Sale, who was scheduled to play long toss Wednesday. 'He'll know when he's able to get on there and know when he's closer.'
'Right now, he's getting closer, but I think if you keep going, he might end up getting to a point where he might have to go do one rehab start, something short.'"
It's not much of an explanation, but essentially Sale's feedback on his progress fueled concerns about a need for a longer process, which jives with the 127-pitch outing in the first place: Sale is demanding an ace workload, but struggling to recover on time, which is why we're going this separation between his bullpen session and his actually being declared ready.
By May 3, Don Cooper was openly rejecting the notion of a timeline for Sale.
"'Nobody has made a plan like, 'He'll do this on Monday, this on Tuesday, this on Wednesday and follow through the week,'' said Cooper of the White Sox ace, who was placed on the disabled list retroactive to April 18 with a flexor muscle strain in his left arm. 'We are going day by day and [we'll] see what we [get], and then we'll deal with it as we go.'"
By May 8, things were just downright weird.
"Sale threw a bullpen session on Wednesday, which Ventura said went well. Sale hasn't reported any setbacks and has told Ventura he feels good and is progressing.
It's been more than 15 days since Sale landed on the disabled list, but the White Sox seem content to take their time with one of the cornerstones of their franchise. His flexor muscle strain is a tricky one to deal with, and they don't want to take any chances. It's similar to when the team gave him a 10-day break in 2012, when it experimented with making Sale the closer."
I wouldn't think invoking the period of time where the Sox suddenly decided Sale didn't have the ability to sustain a starter's workload anymore, before nearly instantly reneging, would be something that offers clarity on what Sale's going through now, unless the Sox internally questioned whether Sale would make another start this year over these five weeks.
Additionally, "no setbacks" is an odd description of a recovery period that was already behind schedule and had no set end date. We can assume this is meant just to indicate that Sale did not additionally aggravate his strain during his rehab work, but that he can miss his target date by three weeks without any "setbacks" show how much guesswork initial projections for strains are.
Two days later on May 10, Sale threw a reportedly idyllic simulation game.
Sale, who was put on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to
April 18 with a strained left flexor, threw four simulated innings, using all of his pitches in the middle two. After taking it easy in the first inning, Sale said he didn’t hold back in the latter three.
Sale said he was encouraged by the session. Indications are that he will make two rehab starts before returning to the Sox, though his preference would be one start so he could get back sooner.
The White Sox have brought people back into the rotation off the strength of inspiring simulation games in the past, but were facing a month-long absence at this point and were always unlikely to act similarly, especially with Sale. In game action, Sale is all-powerful tool that the Sox can't seem to resist pushing the limits with. When the lights go off, they are more protective.
On May 16, Sale laid waste to Triple-A Durham in a four-inning, 68 pitch outing, and was given the possibility of either another rehab start or a side session in front of team officials. He's opted for the latter, and is still waiting approval for a return to the rotation that would be about nine or 10 days after looking healthy against Triple-A competition.
In sum, Sale went nearly three weeks without any serious re-entry into throwing, when it appears the Sox weren't expecting that period to last anything beyond a week at most. After that took place, they put him on a two-to-three week recovery schedule, despite how great he looked. It reads as cautious enough, after the unnecessarily high-stress April outing (he was rolling and the bullpen stunk but it was April in a rebuilding year), and aggressive early posturing on his recovery date, which might have been more of an attempt to quell initial panic than a projection.
In handling Sale, the Sox can resemble the significant other who gets into plenty of fights, but always takes care to sincerely apologize when its over. As a result, you stay with them, but spend time wondering how they could be better.