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Steady White Sox taking advantage of summer Sale

By Scott Miller | Senior Baseball Columnist
Chris Sale has an 8-2 record, with a 2.46 ERA. (US Presswire)

LOS ANGELES -- He's all skin and bones, just 23, and he looks more like a guy who would show you around a college campus than a fire-breathing lefty pitching monster with the second-best ERA in the American League.

Go ahead, get a good look.

Because the next place you may see Chris Sale is pitching in next month's All-Star Game. Hey, sillier things have happened.

Like. ...

"Just watch that guy eat," White Sox reliever Matt Thornton says. "I wish I had that metabolism.

"I eat a cookie, I gain a pound-and-a-half. He eats 10 cookies and doesn't gain an ounce."

Sale stands 6-6, and a laughable 180 pounds. Maybe. That's how he's listed. Teammates guess 160, 170.

They tease him by calling him "Flat Stanley." Or, "Slim Jim." You'd swear, even folded in half, he could fit through a mail slot.

But step into that batter's box, and you wish the guy was giving you a college tour instead of unleashing a fastball that sizzles as whisks through the zone.

That sizzle got away from him for one night Friday, when he helped blow a four-run lead against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, turning it into a 7-6 White Sox loss. The cookie crumbled when the Dodgers slowed Sale's sails during a sixth-inning knockout as he uncharacteristically walked four in 5 2/3 innings.

"You get five runs off of a guy like that, the best in the league ... I've got to be better than that," Sale said afterward, bitterly. "That was a load of crap is what that was."

It wasn't pretty, no.

But it also was the first of 13 starts in which he's surrendered more than three earned runs.

The guy is 5-0 with a 1.93 ERA and 49 strikeouts in his past six starts, including Friday's no-decision. For the season, he's 8-2 with a 2.46 ERA, second in the AL to the Angels' C.J. Wilson (2.30).

"He's got all the attributes you'd want," Sox pitching coach Don Cooper says. "He's a competitor, he's tough, he's a fighter, he's got good stuff, good movement, he throws strikes, he changes speeds."

About the only thing Sale doesn't do is wash Chicago's uniforms after he starts.

"He's got a good combination of power and a feel for strikes," Cooper continues. "Heck, he's always given me the impression, even when he first got here, that he's been around longer than he has."

He's an old soul at 23. The Sox picked him in the first round of the 2010 draft (13th overall), and he was in the majors barely more than a month later. A grand total of 11 minor-league appearances and, voila.

The plan always was to make him a starter, though his first 79 major-league appearances in '10 and '11 came in relief.

"He's a really strong competitor," Sox starter Gavin Floyd says. "Besides his natural, God-given ability, he knows how dominant he can be.

"I think being in the bullpen, working in the late innings, molded him to have that attitude."

As general manager Kenny Williams seriously overhauled both the roster and the coaching staff in what many figured would be a rebuilding year for the White Sox, Sale moved into the rotation this spring and has looked very much at home ever since.

Only question came in early May, after Hector Santiago washed out as the White Sox closer and Sale let on that he was feeling soreness in his elbow. Hitting the pause button to make sure his elbow was sound, the Sox moved him to the bullpen. It lasted one appearance. Then Sale talked his way back into the rotation.

What his old bullpen-mates saw during these few days didn't surprise them.

"He's an unbelievable competitor," Thornton says. "It takes quite a bit of backbone to stand up to the GM and the coaching staff. It wasn't like it was a big confrontation, but to say, 'No, I want to start' ... especially at that age.

"It's one thing for someone to do that who's a 30-year-old veteran."

Sale's bullpen appearance came in one inning on May 8. He was back in the rotation on May 12 against Kansas City.

"A lot of it was in the terms used with what was going on," first-year manager Robin Ventura says. "We were reacting to alleviate that."

During later conversations, Ventura says, "different words were used."

That, combined with doctors' clearance, enabled Sale to win the debate. And beginning May 17, over a five-start span, he went 5-0 with an 0.98 ERA, 43 strikeouts and only seven walks.

When he whiffed 15 Rays on May 28, he became the youngest pitcher to fan 15 or more since the Cubs' Mark Prior punched out 16 Brewers in 2003.

His fastball normally is 94-96 m.p.h., and he can crank it up into the high 90s or even 100. He throws a terrific change-up and a slurve, and they all come from behind uncanny deception in his delivery.

"To me, those are attributes of the top guys," Cooper says.

The Dodgers faced him once this spring, enough to know what they were getting into Friday.

"He's surprising because he's long and lanky, and it looks from that motion like he wouldn't be a starter," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly says. "But all of our guys were coming back to the dugout like, 'Ooooh!' They all came back talking."

Thanks to leadoff man Dee Gordon and Jerry Hairston Jr., Friday they were walking. Two of the five runs they scored against Sale reached base via walks. Against the pitcher who led the AL in lowest batting average against at .188, that was the opening the Dodgers needed.

Competitive? You bet.

"That was everything this team did not need from me tonight," Sale said with disgust.

But to this point, he's given them everything they've needed.

"That wasn't his best," Ventura said, "but it was still pretty good."

 
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