Typically, at this time of year, any conversation involving a ring pertains to the one worn on a player’s finger after winning the World Series.
But not for Chris Sale, whose unusual month got even weirder in the past few days when he said his recent hospitalization was the result of poor belly-button-ring maintenance. Apparently, that was only a ruse, with Sale being egged on by a teammate, yet he didn’t divulge the real details of what initially was described as a stomach ailment.
Why would he? Sale was having too much fun with the fake story, as were his teammates. When informed that Brock Holt would get a number of piercings if the Red Sox won the Series, the usually deadpan Sale cracked a smile.
“Hey, that’s what I do,” Sale said. “Fashionista, I guess.”
The Red Sox, however, would prefer a different kind of job description, such as staff ace — something that Sale really hasn’t been since late July.
It’s remarkable when you think about it. Not only did Boston win 108 games with a minimal contribution from Sale in the last two months of the regular season, but they bounced the Yankees and Astros while using him in a mostly cameo role.
To date, Sale has been barely serviceable, cobbling together a total of 9 1⁄3 innings in two starts and allowing six hits and four earned runs. He also had a one-inning relief appearance during the Game 4 clincher against the Yankees. In this October of diminished expectations for starting pitchers, Sale has followed the pack in that regard rather than impacting the playoffs in a more meaningful way.
On the eve of Tuesday’s Game 1, does Sale have enough left to change that trend after all he’s endured just to get here? Two DL stints, both related to shoulder inflammation, then an unspecified stomach illness that caused Sale to lose weight as well as limit him to one turn in the ALCS against the Astros.
The last time we saw Sale on the mound, on Oct. 13, he was throwing 92 mph and his command — by his own later admission — was nonexistent. He appeared to be cooked, which was a logical assumption for a guy who had switched to survival mode heading into the playoffs.
Sale already had a history of struggling to stay healthy after the All-Star break, and the Red Sox went to great lengths this year to make sure he saved some bullets for the postseason.
Against that backdrop, Sale and the Red Sox have portrayed the time missed because of the stomach ailment as a benefit. That should give you an idea of how badly Sale needed a breather and what a bonus it was that he didn’t have to pitch in the Game 6 that never happened.
Even so, Sale won’t acknowledge any restrictions. “If I’m standing on the mound,” he said, “I’m 100 percent.”
That should be easy enough to evaluate. The Dodgers will play a big role in determining that, and so will a few glimpses of the radar gun.
Since July 27, a nearly three-month stretch, Sale has pitched 27 1⁄3 innings, pushing into the sixth only once — against the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS, when he struck out eight and allowed two earned runs.
After his relief stint in Game 4, Sale returned as a starter in the ALCS and didn’t bear any resemblance to a Cy Young candidate. His routine ever since has been anything but, although a few extra days of rest and a boost of World Series adrenaline have worked wonders for players before. Sale will be the latest test case for that. If this can’t fix him for the short term, nothing will.
“It’s been nice to get a little more normalcy into it,” Sale said. “Getting my strength back.”
Maybe just in time for a ring of the non-belly-button variety.