There’s some good news and bad news about Florida Gulf Coast University’s most famous former student-athlete, Boston Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale.
The good news is that Sale, a Lakeland native who was FGCU’s first inductee into the ASUN Conference Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class of 2015, set an incredible Major League Baseball record Aug. 13. When he struck out Cleveland Indians center fielder Oscar Mercado on a slider to end the third inning, Sale became the fastest pitcher in history to reach 2,000 career strikeouts.
Now 30, Sale reached the milestone in 1,626 career innings – 85 innings quicker than Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, ironically also with the Red Sox. For comparison, it took all-time strikeout king Nolan Ryan almost 240 more innings — 1,865.2 — to reach 2,000 on his way to the career-record 5,714 Ryan compiled that might never be topped.
Sale also holds the record for fastest pitcher to 1,500 career strikeouts, which he did in 1,290 innings.
‘It’s cool … it’s special,” Sale told MLB.com after setting the record. “I’m not a real big fan of stats, numbers and stuff like that, but I appreciate it. A lot of people put in a lot of work getting me there.”
One of those people is FGCU head baseball Coach Dave Tollett, who recruited Sale out of Lakeland Senior High School in 2007 after the young pitcher was drafted in the 21st round by the Colorado Rockies but opted to sign with the Eagles instead.
“This is an amazing record that has stood for a long time, and to break this record by more than 80 innings speaks volumes about how good Chris is,” said Tollett, the Eagles’ program-founding coach who helped guide his budding ace to a perfect 11-0 record and NCAA-leading 140 strikeouts in 2010, when Sale was named both ASUN Conference and Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year. Later that same spring, Tollett would see Sale drafted in the first round (13th overall) by the Chicago White Sox before the lanky, 6-foot-6 lefty made his MLB debut that August. The White Sox would trade Sale to the Red Sox in 2017.
“If he were to leave the game today, he would own that record, plus the records for strikeouts per nine innings (11.1) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.32),” Tollett pointed out. “With seven All-Star appearances (2012-18) and a World Series championship (2018 with the Red Sox), we could one day see our former Eagle in Cooperstown.”
That’s where the National Baseball Hall of Fame is located in upstate New York, and the early returns from the first 10 seasons of Sale’s career have him well on the way to enshrinement there. Besides the impressive numbers already cited, Sale has 109 career wins, led the American League in strikeouts in 2015 and 2017, and pitched two immaculate innings (three strikeouts in the minimum nine pitches) twice in less than a month earlier this season.
But this season also brings the bad news, which actually could have been much worse. Sale hurt his left elbow in the same game he set the 2,000-strikeout record, according to the Red Sox front office, and was placed on the 10-day injury list. With fears of a ligament tear looming, Sale visited noted reconstruction surgeon Dr. James Andrews on Aug. 19 to get a second opinion, and while the pitcher avoided the worst-case scenario, so-called Tommy John surgery, he will miss the remainder of the regular season with inflammation, according to multiple reports. Following a shutdown from throwing, Sale will be reevaluated by Andrews in six weeks, according to a team statement.
Sale’s manager, Alex Cora of the Red Sox, says he’s losing more than statistics in his ace’s absence. “The pitcher is amazing. The person is better,” Cora told MLB.com. “That tells a lot. This is a guy I really respect. He shows up every single day, regardless if he pitches or not. He’s pulling for his teammates, doing everything possible for us to win. I’m very proud of him.”