- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- It was late in the game, under the Monday night lights, when Chris Sale picked off a Kansas City ball and looked for more contact.
I know it's a couple days until the Bears open the preseason, but really, the football terminology is apt here, because without Sale, the Chicago White Sox would be getting ready for their fantasy football drafts.
With Sale, the first-place Sox are legitimate playoff contenders, gunning for life in October.
Sale got his 13th win Monday night in his first start since July 27, striking out seven and walking none. The extra rest worked, as Sale threw eight innings in the Sox's 4-2 comeback win over the Kansas City Royals. The Cy Young contender (2.59 ERA, 31 walks and 9 home runs in 132 innings) threw 101 pitches and his last two outs showed why he is such a special pitcher.
With runners at the corners and no outs in a tie game in the eighth inning, Sale got one out from a diving Alexei Ramirez, before he made like Brian Urlacher.
Alcides Escobar bunted to Sale on a safety squeeze, and Tony Abreu got a late jump going toward home. Instead of throwing to A.J. Pierzynski, Sale took the ball and ran toward Abreu, tagging him and nearly tackling him.
"There's not many guys who can make that play in the league," Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "To have him be a good pitcher and be athletic like that is nice to have. He plays defense."
Sale struck Lorenzo Cain with a high 92-mph fastball to end his night. He screamed into his glove as he walked off the field. Relief.
The Sox scored two in the bottom of the inning -- Gordon Beckham homered and Kevin Youkilis hit an RBI double -- and 30,000-plus went home happy as the Sox improved to 60-48, keeping their 1½-game lead over second-place Detroit.
Sale's start after nine days rest was a very good sign for a team that desperately needs stability in its starting rotation.
After all, it's the first week of August. Do you know where your White Sox starters are?
Here's a recap: John Danks is in blissed-out recovery after Monday's shoulder surgery tabled him for the season. Phil Humber is now in the bullpen. Jake Peavy, he of the medically miraculous lat muscle, is still throwing and battling and dreaming about dogpiling with the boys in October.
Newcomer Francisco Liriano is nursing a bruised quad, but is otherwise ready to pitch. Rookie Jose Quintana is scuffling a little bit, which is to be expected, but a little worrisome. Gavin Floyd is, well, Gavin Floyd.
In a season in which he was almost exiled back to the bullpen with a questionable elbow, Sale, the phenom in his first season as a starter, is probably the most important, and most watched, member of the White Sox. He's a reason for celebration and worry.
You're not a White Sox fan if you haven't had visions of Sale's left arm snapping off in mid-pitch and Sale-ing plate-ward. You get the feeling chairman Jerry Reinsdorf is more worried about Sale's shoulder than Luol Deng's wrist.
Can Sale, the rail-thin would-be franchise pitcher, make it through the final two months of the season?
How can Sale handle pitching in a pennant race in the dog days knowing that every start from here on out is vital? Should he be making every start despite a drastic jump in innings (71 last year in the bullpen)?
Those aren't easy questions. But I tend to side with Peavy's view on things: It's go time.
"The biggest thing is keeping the feel," said Peavy, who knows a thing or two about pitching good, bad and injured. "Extra rest is always a good thing, but we're about to get to the point where we're trying to chase down this dream and you're not going to be going on extra rest. It's about to be go time and you get to get out there as much as you can get out there."
For Peavy, the cagey veteran writing his comeback story, the time for extra rest is over. But both he can understand why, for Sale, future concerns play into it. Manager Robin Ventura, in his first year worrying about pitchers, thinks Sale should be fine the rest of the season. Well, "hopes" is more like it.
"You hope so," Ventura said of Sale's extra days off. "That was the plan of doing it. Now you get to find out if it actually works. Nobody knows for sure. But we are erring on the side of helping him out. Giving him the best chance possible."
Sale, of course, wants the ball the rest of the way.
"You've got to find a rhythm, find a tempo and go with it," Sale said. "The next two months we've got to make a push. So I don't see any extended rest in my future."
You want that. Peavy said you question a guy's makeup if he doesn't. There's a responsibility in managing young pitchers. Ventura is learning on the job, and leaning on pitching coach Don Cooper, the World Series-winning guru. Peavy is privy to how the Sox are handling these kinds of play-or-rest decisions, given his recent past, and he likes where the organization is at.
"This organization has handled Chris Sale brilliantly," Peavy said. "When you look how Washington seems to be all over the map -- 'We got this many innings or there's no number. I'm in control, and this and that' -- we've had an open line of communication from the front office, from Kenny to Rick Hahn to what's going on in this clubhouse to all of us. That's something that hasn't happened in the past. It's so nice to see an organization work as a cohesive group from the top of the chain all the way down to us and make good decisions for all the players on the club."
A seemingly unnecessary shot at manager Ozzie Guillen aside, Peavy is right. There has to be trust from everyone the next two months.
Let's assume Sale stays physically healthy the rest of the way (don't everyone knock on wood at once) and the Sox have no plans to rest him, and certainly not shut him down like Stephen Strasburg in Washington. This start was a good, well, start.
Physically, Sale said he was unencumbered. After two starts topping out at 91-92, leading to his extra vacation, he was throwing his fastball steadily from 92-95. His changeup was successful, and he threw some hard sliders.
"It felt good," he said. "It felt loose, felt comfortable out there. I just try not to do too much. Sometimes when you feel too loose, you try to do a little bit too much and that's the thing I was trying not to do."
But, what about the health of the body part above his shoulders?
"Part of all of this is the pressure of what's expected and the consequences if it doesn't happen," Ventura said. "That's the stuff that makes people play tight. I don't want these guys to play tight. I want them [to] play hard enough that they can feel free to make a mistake, and it sounds odd to be able to say that. But to play well, you have to have the freedom to also make a mistake."
Sale just wants that freedom to perform.
"You still have to go out there and pitch," he said. "Just the last [start] I went through a little dead arm period. It's par for the course. It's all behind us now. We got a couple months left and we are going to have [to] make a push, and it's not going to be easy. So, we got to hop on board and bring it every day."
Or in his case, every fifth day. That's all the Sox want.
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