FORT MYERS, Fla. - The 2018 season ended with the Boston Red Sox celebrating their World Series title in a cramped clubhouse at Dodger Stadium and Chris Sale ordering the media out of the room so his teammates could enjoy the moment together.
Sale had put the finishing touches on the World Series by striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth. As enduring as that October run was for Sale and the Red Sox, the seven-time All-Star also said 2018 was the most difficult season of his career.
"Last year kind of stunk," Sale said Wednesday as the Red Sox opened spring training.
He was referring to the shoulder inflammation that led to two stints on the injury list in the second half, along with diminished velocity and dominance in the playoffs. After an offseason of rest, Sale is healthy and cleared for a normal spring training. Still, he has a goal for 2019: "Not missing a quarter of the year like I did last year," he said. "I want to be sprinting across the finish line instead of limping across it."
Sale wants to make 30-plus starts and pitch 200-plus innings, like he'd done in four of his previous five seasons. While most pitchers would be more than happy with a World Series ring, starting the All-Star Game for a third straight season, going 12-4 with a 2.11 ERA and 237 strikeouts in 158 innings and finishing fourth in the Cy Young vote, Sale didn't like missing time. "You want to be on the field competing, not inside walls," he said.
The Red Sox will be cautious with him in spring training and early in the season, but they were also careful last season, when Sale didn't throw seven innings and 100 pitches until his fifth start in late April. In order to help Sale and the other starters who pitched all those extra innings in October, manager Alex Cora had already announced the Red Sox will begin the season with a six-man rotation.
At the same time, "we're just not going to overlook 162 games to worry only about the final 11 games of the season," Sale said. Indeed, when Sale is going good, it will be difficult for Cora to back off. He had a nine-start stretch last June and July when he allowed five runs in 60 innings with 97 strikeouts while routinely blitzing the upper 90s on the radar.
"With all due respect to [Max] Scherzer and [Jacob] deGrom and all the other horses out there, at one point last season Chris Sale was the best pitcher in baseball," Cora reminded everyone. In his seven seasons as a starter, Sale has finished no lower than sixth in the Cy Young voting (although he has never won it). In that span, he's third in WAR among pitchers, behind only Scherzer and Clayton Kershaw. In 2017, he became the first American League pitcher to strike out 300 batters since Pedro Martinez in 1999 and the first AL lefty to do it since Randy Johnson in 1993.
That leads to the other big question surrounding Sale: He's a free agent after the season. While Dave Dombrowski, the team's president of baseball operations, has said Sale and Mookie Betts are both players the club would like to extend, Sale indicated the club has not yet reached out about a contract extension.
Sale did say, however, that he would "love to" return to Boston. "I've said this since my first year here. It's a special organization with a great fan base that demands excellence. ... Plus, we have a hell of a team."
Sale added that he's not concerned about his contract status. Sale signed a long-term extension early in his career with the White Sox -- following his first season as a starter and second full year in the majors -- so, as he put it, he's always been under contract and not had to worry about that aspect of his career. He feels that's been one reason for his success, so he'll let his agents handle that side of things. "I'm a baseball player," he said. "I play baseball."
The slow free-agent market the past two offseasons could conceivably play a factor in how impending free agents like Sale view extensions. Asked about Craig Kimbrel, the Red Sox's closer in 2018, remaining unsigned, Sale said, "It's crazy to me." He then said he didn't want to go too much into the politics of the market but did throw out this zinger: "With half the teams in the league just showing up to collect checks, it doesn't help."
For now, however, Sale and the Red Sox are focused on going back-to-back. No team has done that since the Yankees won three in a row from 1998 to 2000. Cora pointed out that getting back to a World Series hasn't been quite as hard in recent years -- the Dodgers have gone the past two seasons, the Royals did it in 2014-15, the Phillies in 2008-09. Cora knows the AL East will be tough. He thinks the Red Sox can be better than last year. Having his ace on the mound for 30 starts will be the first step in winning again.