CHICAGO -- Feeling too modest about his skinny frame to do a postgame interview without his shirt on, Chris Sale’s shoulders are still broad enough to make him the foundation of the Chicago White Sox’s roster rebuild.
He had just shown why he is considered one of the best in the business Thursday with a one-hit gem over seven innings, soiled only by a high pitch count and that Boston Red Sox starter Jon Lester was going toe-to-toe with him from the opposite side.
Lester eventually won the war of attrition and the Red Sox went on to a 3-1 victory by taking advantage of the White Sox's beleaguered bullpen.
This one had everything a good pitchers’ duel should possess, including dueling no-hitters into the sixth inning and strikeout totals that soared. Yet you didn’t have to be in the ballpark to feel the squirm factor in the team’s executive suite behind home plate.
There, among the wood-paneled walls and thick padded seats, was the team’s brain trust that watched Sale approach 100 pitches after six innings ... then 110 ... then 120 ... and ultimately a career-high 127 by the time he finished seven innings, allowing just a run on one hit in the process.
It was a combination of tapping into Sale’s competitive nature as long as possible and avoiding a bullpen that has essentially been gasoline on some smoldering early-season fires.
But it also was a gigantic workload on an April evening that seemed riskier than it was worth in the big picture.
“Yeah, you know 115, 120 [pitches], you know he can do that,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “Do you want to do it every night? No. But in a game like tonight, it’s hard to take him out of that when he’s battled a pitcher like that. Guys like him like to be in that game.”
Sale is more a task-at-hand guy, so his goal is to always finish what he started. He had zero qualms about the rising pitch total but also realized he had never climbed this high on the mountain.
“That’s what I’m supposed to do, especially after a night like last night,” Sale said, referring to the 14-inning outing Wednesday when the bullpen was taxed. “We had the house throwing multiple innings. You got to pick up some slack right there and do what you can.”
Sale turned 25 recently, so youth is certainly on his side. But the first answers as to how Thursday’s start might have affected him will come Tuesday at the Detroit Tigers when he next takes the mound. It isn’t out of the question that the effects linger on much longer.
But it doesn’t have to be so black-and-white, either, in which 100 pitches means an automatic end to your night. The coaching staff showed their trust, and that has value, as well.
“I felt that was a good move and a lot of respect from the staff to leave him in there,” White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers said. “He battled his butt off all game and we weren’t able to get too many runs for him. Kind of leave the game in his hands, and he did a great job.”
Flowers admitted, though, that Sale was at the end of his rope. He was mixing in more changeups late in the outing to preserve his pitching energy, but Sale ramped it up one last time for a strikeout of Ryan Roberts to end his night.
Asked about what seemed to be stall tactics in order to help him along in his last inning of work, Sale promised it was nothing to be alarmed about.
“I think it was more just trying to focus," he said. "I think it’s no secret that my emotions were running a little high. Just trying to dial it back a little bit and try to make my pitch. Getting that late in the game, that high pitch count, adrenaline kicks in and gets you through that. It wasn’t anything of getting tired or anything like that. It was just trying to compose myself and protect the pitches that I had.”
The White Sox might have fallen short, but Sale enjoyed the battle.
“That atmosphere tonight, it was great,” he said. “Obviously knowing who you got across the way, runs are going to be scarce. Going out there and giving everything you got, a team rolls in like this, you can’t really have any consternation with that. You can’t shy away from that.”