Chris Sale looks like Cy Young Award candidate again, Braves love his whole vibe

ATLANTA — Some of his new Atlanta Braves teammates didn’t know how much Chris Sale had left in the proverbial tank after five injury-plagued seasons that might’ve mentally drained many former elite pitchers after hitting their mid-30s. Never mind the physical toll of surgeries, stress fractures and other ailments Sale endured.

What they did know, or at least those who asked around of Sale’s former teammates after the Braves acquired him in a Dec. 30 trade from the Boston Red Sox, was that as long as Sale was healthy enough to pitch, he would give all he had, be a great teammate and absolutely, positively be as competitive as anyone on the field or anyone they had ever played with. That’s what his former teammates told them.

They were right.

Braves first baseman Matt Olson was 0-for-5 with two strikeouts against Sale when Olson was with the Oakland Athletics, so he knew firsthand how daunting it was for a left-handed hitter facing Sale’s slider, slung from a three-quarters arm slot by the 6-foot-6 lefty pitcher. And in one of Sale’s first starts at spring training, Olson saw firsthand that massive competitive streak.

“I mean he got fired up one time in spring training, which, I love it,” Olson said, making clear that he’s not one who believes competitiveness should be tempered in spring training games, even if they are basically exhibition games or glorified workouts. “I like seeing that stuff, especially from a guy on the mound in just spring training. There’s no, like, middle ground for him. He’s pitching or he’s not, and it doesn’t matter if it’s the first start in spring or the World Series, he’s gonna be grinding his ass off.”

Told what Olson said about Sale treating every game he pitches with utmost seriousness and competiveness, Braves veteran catcher Travis d’Arnaud smiled and said, “Not just every game, every pitch. He’s locked in on every pitch. He’s been like that since he’s been here.”

Here’s what else Sale has been since he joined the Braves: Really good early, and great lately. Yes, the 35-year-old so many had written off after all those recent injury-riddled seasons with Boston, has been terrific in his first season with the Braves.

Sale is 7-1 with a 2.22 ERA in nine starts and enters his Sunday assignment at Pittsburgh on a six-start winning streak in which he’s posted a 1.15 ERA with — gulp — 50 strikeouts and only three walks in 39 innings.

“His fastball command is so good, I think it’s something that’s not talked about enough,” d’Arnaud said. “I didn’t even know until working with him that’s he’s got both the four-seamer and the two-seamer.”

In his last completely healthy season in 2017, when Sale was the American League Cy Young Award runner-up for Boston after going 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA and leading the majors in strikeouts (308) and innings (214 1/3) in 32 starts, he had had four wins and a 2.19 ERA through his first nine starts.

Not to suggest he could replicate that season — the Braves are giving him five or six days’ rest between most starts and will be careful as his innings mount — but what Sale’s doing has been one of the more pleasantly surprising stories in baseball this season.

“It’s even more so once you get to know the person, get to know the competitor, get to know really what he’s all about,” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz said. “He threw the ball the other day and was unbelievably good. He came in and he’s saying, just between me and him, stuff like, ‘How ‘bout those plays (Austin) Riley made?’ ‘How ‘bout the catch that so-and-so made.’ You know what I mean? I said, ‘Well how ‘bout the guy that struck out 10?’

“But it just shows, he’s very giving, he’s thoughtful to his teammates. He’s as good of a teammate, I think, as you will ever have.”

Sale is getting even better as he gets deeper into the season. He gave up three runs in the first game of his six-start winning streak and has allowed one or no runs in each of the past five.

“I mean, we love that he’s gripping it and ripping it,” Olson said. “No matter what it is, it’s been really fun to play behind.”

What it’s been is sheer dominance lately. In the past 30 days before Saturday, encompassing five starts in his winning streak, Sale led all MLB qualifiers in ERA (0.56) while totaling 43 strikeouts with two walks and one homer allowed in 32 innings. No other starter is close to his stunning strikeout-to-walks ratio in those 30 days.

Walks are a big thing with Sale. He gets angry at himself when he issues free passes, whether he’s on a winning streak or not.

“Doesn’t matter where you’re at, whether you’re on a great run or a horrible run, if you’re going to get beat let them beat you,” Sale said. “Don’t beat yourself. I know that situations come up, but more times than not all your problems are outside of the zone. So when you’re in trouble, going through that zone is always your way out of it.”

Asked if being healthy for the first time in several years has been a key to regaining the pinpoint command he had in his best seasons with the White Sox and Red Sox, Sale said, “These are tricky things to talk about. Again, I just appreciate where I’m at and being able to have the opportunity to do it.”

The Braves, who lost 2023 MLB strikeout and wins leader Spencer Strider to season-ending elbow surgery after just two starts, are thrilled with the performance they’re getting from Sale along with Max Fried, who has a 2.01 ERA and .162 opponents’ average in his past eight starts, and Reynaldo López, who has a 1.75 ERA but only a 2-2 record to show for it, including a 4-1 loss Saturday at Pittsburgh when the Braves’ sputtering offense again failed to get enough hits in key situations.

Pitching has had to carry much more of the load this season than last year for the Braves, and no one has been more important in that effort than Sale, whose performance on the field has been matched by his presence in the clubhouse and the good vibes he sends out with his work habits and team-first attitude.

“It’s great, because he has a lot of wisdom,” Kranitz said. “Which really helps everybody. Young guys, the older guys. You put that on how hard he’s worked due to the injuries, so he can offer that to our guys. You know, he’s at a different level than a lot of pitchers in this game. He’s been through a lot, he’s won a World Series, All-Star Games, and he’s still very humble.”

Olson said, “You don’t get a reputation like that of being such a good guy and competitor if it’s not true. And he’s great in here with the guys. You obviously know what he’s going to do every five days, but he’s somebody that just wants to win. He fits our mold here. He’s very genuine and wants to win, and that’s kind of all he sees, which is great.”

Asked what it’s been like playing with Sale, d’Arnaud said, “Oh, it’s been great. He’s really funny, has a good time, loves his music.”

What kind of music? “Rap. Old-school hip-hop. Well, I consider it old-school. It’s like ‘90s, 2000s, all the songs I grew up with.”

D’Arnaud added, “He’s good, man. World Series champ, jokester, plays video games with all of us, always hangs out with us, team dinners, fits right in. He’s always about the team.”

After every good start, Sale has deflected attention from his performance by citing all the good defensive plays made behind him, often naming each individual who made one. Several times, he’s credited the training staff — again, naming each of them — for doing everything to keep him healthy and on the field.

He credits manager Brian Snitker and his coaching staff for creating a stress-free environment and letting players be themselves. He has talked frequently about how much fun he’s having with these teammates, how they all pull for each other and make it fun to come to the ballpark.

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“He’s as good of a teammate, I think, as you will ever have,” Braves pitching coach Rick Kranitz, left, said of Chris Sale, right. (Joe Nicholson / USA Today)

Asked if this was an ideal place for a veteran at this stage of his career, Sale said, “Any stage of your career. I think if this was the first team you ever played for as a young guy, it shows you what is important, what is not important. I think we just put all our effort into the things that are important. Anything else is just, don’t even worry about it.”

His comments, postgame interviews and serious, take-no-guff mound demeanor have quickly made Sale a favorite among Braves fans. That and his performance, of course, particularly at Truist Park.

A Central Florida native who’d never pitched in Atlanta before this season, Sale has thrilled home crowds and won all six of his starts at Truist, leading the majors in home wins while posting a 1.37 ERA and 0.69 WHIP at home, with 47 strikeouts and three walks in 39 1/3 innings.

His past three starts have been at home, and Sale has 20 scoreless innings in that stretch while allowing 13 hits and one walk with 28 strikeouts, including 10 strikeouts in six innings against his former Boston team on May 8.

Oh, and about that spring training incident. Olson said he thought it was after Sale issued a walk, but he wasn’t sure.

“I remember the incident,” Sale said, smiling. “I just put a lot of emphasis on competing. And whether that’s spring training, regular-season game, fourth inning, first inning — I like to do my job. Again, maybe I’m putting more pressure on myself because I’ve always looked at this as like, I work once a week, or once every fifth day. I really only have — what are we out there, 30 to 35 times a year? — to do what I’m supposed to do, and I have four days in between to get to that point.

“And I just feel like I’m wasting it if I’m not pitching well, or beating myself. Beating myself is probably my least favorite thing on the planet to do, and that’s walking guys. Because you see at this level, walks and errors and baserunners — if you give those guys more opportunities, more than likely they’re going to capitalize on it. So, yeah, I like to compete.”

And the Braves like that he’s competing for them. At 35, when many had written him off as an ace-caliber pitcher.

(Top photo of Chris Sale: Dale Zanine / USA Today)

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