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Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Chris Sale, left, is pulled from the game by manager Alex Cora, right, during the third inning against the Washington Nationals on Sunday.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Chris Sale is one of the most dominant pitchers of the past decade, and when he’s at his best almost no one can touch him.

That, unfortunately, isn’t the case the first week of October of 2021.

Or is it unfortunate? Not according to Sale, the Game 2 starter of the Red Sox-Rays ALDS.

He agrees. Since coming back from Tommy John surgery, he hasn’t been at his best.

The Chris Sale we’ve seen since August, the one who will start Game 2 of the American League Divisional Series against the Tampa Bay Rays on Friday, is not the same Chris Sale we’ve come to know and expect. The overpowering stuff isn’t quite back, and neither is the consistency.

Remarkably, he said figuring this out on the run has been, well, fun.

“It’s been a lot more fun for me because I’m almost — not relearning, but, like, I’m figuring this stuff out as we go,” Sale said. “I’m not really fighting against anybody as much as I’m fighting against myself trying to sharpen my tools and make better pitches.”

Rather than get down about the slow but steady progress, Sale says he’s embraced the opportunity as a valuable learning experience.

Plus, even if not quite up to his high standards, the results have still been pretty good.

Since making his return Sale has gone 5-1 with a 3.16 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 42.2 innings. The Red Sox have been careful to manage his workload, and usually when things haven’t worked out, it’s because Sale’s made one or two costly mistakes.

The one exception? His last start.

Sale started Sunday’s regular season finale against the Washington Nationals and only lasted seven outs. All of those outs came via strikeouts, but otherwise he did not have command and he wound up exiting after walking in a run with the bases loaded.

Even still, when it was his turn in the rotation again, Red Sox manager Alex Cora said there was no hesitation to give Sale the ball.

“It’s been two years trying to get to this point, you know, all the hard work, all the tears and sweat, you know, throughout the process,” Cora said. “So we have to take care of him. But it was his turn, and we feel comfortable with him.”

Sale said the biggest challenge for him has been to rediscover his changeup. Sale said he’s in a spot where if he throws 10 of them, four will be good, two just ‘ehh’ and the rest, in his words, “batting practice.”

Getting more comfortable with that pitch, and on the mound in general, has continued to be a big focus heading into the playoffs.

“I worked a lot this week,” Sale said. “I was able to work a lot this week on my mechanics and, you know, getting a better arm action and just feeling more comfortable on the mound and being able to — not so much just that one, but everything as a whole, feeling more comfortable standing on a mound and getting back to more of my old self and some of the habits I was doing then.”

Will 80% of Chris Sale be good enough in a high intensity playoff atmosphere against one of the best teams in baseball? We’re going to find out, but big picture is that Sale’s recovery is much bigger than just one playoff start, and at this stage he is enjoying the process of rediscovering who he is.

“I’ve been able to appreciate this process because of knowing that, A, I’m not alone, and B, it’s going to get better,” Sale said. “We just keep swinging the ax and whenever we’re done, we’re done.”


Twitter: @MacCerullo.

Email: Twitter: @MacCerullo.

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