HOUSTON -- A few minutes before the biggest game in the history of the baseball program at Florida Gulf Coast University, Dave Tollett walked out to the bullpen to make sure his starting pitcher wasn't freaking out.
"Coach, don't worry," Chris Sale said. "We're going to get this done."
Then, as promised, Sale gave up two runs on six hits over seven innings, struck out 11 batters and outdueled Stetson ace Jacob deGrom (yes, that Jacob deGrom) in the first round of the 2010 Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. The 9-4 victory was the finishing flourish of Sale's 11-0 record as a junior, and it represented the first postseason win in the Division I ranks for Florida Gulf Coast.
It was also the last playoff game Sale pitched.
The Chicago White Sox finished six games out of first place when Sale was a rookie in 2010 and three games out in 2012. Otherwise, the ace left-hander never so much as sniffed the postseason in his first seven big league seasons.
There's no telling, then, how Sale will react Thursday when he takes the ball for the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series.
"I'm 28 years old, so I've been waiting for this for about 23 years," Sale said. "This has been a long time coming."
Given Sale's ability and regular-season history, he would appear to be a safe bet to give the power-packed Houston Astros all they can handle. Plus, Sale's first season with the Red Sox couldn't have gone much better. In 32 starts, he went 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA. He led the majors in innings (214.1) and strikeouts (308). It was exactly what the Red Sox expected when they acquired him in December in a blockbuster trade that sent prized prospects Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech to Chicago.
But October tends to have a strange effect on even the best pitchers. For every Roy Halladay, who tossed a no-hitter in his first career playoff start, there is a Clayton Kershaw, who is 4-7 with a 4.48 ERA in 14 career postseason starts. Justin Verlander, the Astros' Game 1 starter, posted a 5.57 ERA in his first eight playoff starts and a 1.76 ERA in his past eight.
Until Sale scales the mound at Minute Maid Park and experiences the intensity of the playoffs, we can't possibly know if he will rise like Madison Bumgarner or spontaneously combust like (gulp) David Price.
"I think he's going to do just fine," said Pedro Martinez, the last AL pitcher before Sale to rack up 300 strikeouts in a season. "His stuff plays perfect to beat anybody at any point. By this time, I think he's over the hump of having the postseason [get to him]. I think Chris Sale is going to approach the game exactly how he does every single day. The game remains the game. It's 27 outs, nine innings. I think he realizes that. He's mature enough to understand those things."
Tollett is one of the few people who has seen Sale do it. Because Florida Gulf Coast stepped up to Division I in 2008, it wasn't eligible to compete in the conference tournament until 2010, Sale's junior year. As a sophomore, Sale's biggest start came in a head-to-head matchup with Lipscomb's Rex Brothers, an eventual first-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies. Sale won that duel, allowing one run in eight innings in a 7-1 victory.
Sale's big-game mettle was never more evident than in that first-round game against Stetson in 2010 in Nashville.
"He knew what it meant to the program and what it meant to the school, and he was just lights-out," Tollett said. "I just remember everything being business as usual. I went down there, and I said, 'Just go out there and be you. Don't try to do anything more or any less.' And he said, 'Don't worry.' That's just the way he is. I mean, he thrives on this kind of stuff, man.
"And he was really good. He was really good every time I counted on him to be really big. When the chips were high, he was always at his best."
But Sale's scant opportunities to pitch in meaningful late-season games in the big leagues haven't always gone as well.
The White Sox had not been eliminated from the playoff race when Sale faced the Tampa Bay Rays on Sept. 29, 2012. He gave up five runs on seven hits, including a homer by Jeff Keppinger, and lasted only 3⅓ innings, his shortest outing of the season.
Sale stumbled down the stretch this season, alternating one good start with one bad start and contributing to the Red Sox's inability to clinch the AL East until the season's penultimate game. He allowed three solo homers in 4⅓ innings of a 9-2 loss to the New York Yankees on Sept. 3 and four homers in five innings of his final regular-season start last week against the Toronto Blue Jays. In his past 11 starts, he went 4-4 with a 4.09 ERA.
Fatigue might have been a factor. The Red Sox pushed Sale hard early in the season, then lined him up to face the second-place Yankees three times in the span of four weeks after the All-Star break. Sale threw the second-most pitches in the majors, trailing only Verlander.
But if Sale's arm was dragging in September, Tollett suspects he will get a second wind in October. After all, he has been waiting for this moment.
Sale was sitting in Tollett's office the day he got traded to Boston. His first reaction: "Man, I might get a chance to pitch in the postseason." On Saturday night, Tollett's phone lit up with a text message from Sale that read, in part, "Coach, it feels so good to be a champion again."
"That's all he wants to do is pitch for a team that's in the postseason," Tollett said. "He will prepare like any other start, and he will be amped up and ready to go. I'm sure of that."
But there is such a thing as being too amped up in the postseason, especially for Game 1. The adrenaline begins to flow during the pageantry of the pregame ceremony and only builds from there as a pitcher gets loose in the bullpen and makes the long walk across the outfield and back to the dugout.
Verlander referred Tuesday to the "buzz" of the playoffs, "an excitement, even in the locker room, you just sense and feel it." He also talked about “how much more emphasis and stress is put on every single pitch.”
Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski, in his previous job as general manager of the Detroit Tigers, witnessed firsthand how postseason intensity impacted Verlander, whose early list of postseason duds included allowing seven runs, committing an error and not making it out of the sixth inning of Game 1 of the 2006 World Series.
"Part of it, he was so amped up at that time, he just had a little bit extra adrenaline flowing," Dombrowski said. "And then over time, even though that adrenaline was still flowing, he kept it more under control and then, as you know, went on and dominated in the postseason. So sometimes it’s just a process for guys. Of course, you’d love people to dominate any time you talk about the postseason. You’d love people to be Madison Bumgarner all the time when you go out there. But it’s difficult to do."
Red Sox manager John Farrell believes that a season in sports-crazed Boston, where the expectation from the first day of spring training was for Sale to dominate, will prepare the pitcher for what he will face this month.
And Sale is focused on keeping everything the same, including not clogging his mind by poring over scouting reports.
"I don't want to put any more emphasis on this than there already is," he said. "This is obviously playoff baseball, so it comes with a lot more attention. But for me, I'm going to pitch the same game. I'm going to go out there and do the same things I've always done. I'm not going to reach for another avenue that I haven't reached for in my entire career. I don't think now would be the time to start doing that."
Few players understand the difficulty of reaching the postseason as much as Sale. Now that he has finally made it, he has a chance to leave his mark.
"It's what I'm here for," he said.
Just like he said before his last postseason start, seven long years ago.