- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Chris Sale made his 22nd start Wednesday night. He threw 109 pitches, struck out 13, increased his innings total to 153 innings and his win total to 15.
Sale's numbers are fantastic and for some, the innings-watchers, very worrisome.
In the White Sox's 2-1 win over the New York Yankees, the spindly left-hander got to 101 pitches to end the seventh, as Russell Martin missed badly on an 82 mph changeup, with two relievers warming up.
But Sale (2.65 ERA) came out to start the eighth with the Sox clinging to that one-run lead. He needed just eight pitches to strike out Casey McGehee on a slider and Ichiro Suzuki on a 94 mph two-seam fastball, before manager Robin Ventura came to relieve him.
You can worry about Sale's health as he continues to build innings, but pitching coach Don Cooper said he will sleep well at night in the offseason about the way they've handled their phenom all year.
"We're watching and monitoring everything this guy does," Cooper said. "Sidelines, how much he plays catch, certainly how much he pitches in the game. But we've got to win. We're trying to win."
Washington pitcher Stephen Strasburg's oft-discussed hard cap on innings is one of the more polarizing stories in baseball as the first-place Nationals are contenders for the first time since the 1994 strike ended the then-Montreal Expos' dream season. Who knows if it will result in him being shutdown for the playoffs, but the Nationals are being hard-liners about it.
The Sox, however, aren't the Nationals and Sale is not Strasburg, who came back from Tommy John surgery this year. The 23-year-old will keep pitching the rest of the year, but not without some careful monitoring. Sale only threw 71 innings of relief last year, and just 23 1/3 in his rookie season, just months after he was drafted out of Florida Gulf Coast University.
If the Sox make the playoffs, it will be because of Sale. And if the Sox makes the playoffs, they want to get back to the World Series, so they will need Sale, who is all funky angles and changing speeds.
"I'm sure happy we decided to keep him as a starter," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said.
When I talked to Cooper before the game, I didn't mention Strasburg, but the voluble pitching guru knew where I was going when talking about a hard cap on innings.
"I'm certainly never going to paint myself, or ourselves, in a corner," Cooper said, furthering the notion that "nobody puts Coop in a corner."
"I'm not speaking for the organization," he continued. "But I'm not going to use a number. We're going to use our eyes, we're going to use our gut, and we're going to use everything that we see and all of our instincts to make a decision on guys. We're in the heat of it here and we're trying to win a pennant. They don't want to be pulled and we don't want to pull them, but we're going to watch them."
The Sox have tried to give Sale ample rest since he reported elbow tenderness in May. They've skipped starts, pushed him back, added a sixth man to the rotation. It's a plan as Cooper explained to me, saying "plan" about 50 times.
"It's not pressure," he said. "I'll put it this way, it's fun to try and map it out. You've got to have a plan. But that plan, or any plan, you better have some flexibility in that plan or it's not the freaking plan you think it is. But dot dot dot, I look forward to the day we don't have to (plan). You just go kiddo. You go. Same thing with (Jose) Quintana."
ESPNChicago reporter Bruce Levine's sources have told him the Sox plan to skip another Sale start before the season ends. Cooper won't admit it, telling me Wednesday, "As far as I'm concerned, he's got eight more starts left."
Sale's season became a Sox Situation in early May when the Sox announced Sale was returning to the bullpen because of elbow tenderness, following a May 1 start. Then after an inning as the team's closer, Sale got an MRI on the elbow. But the MRI came back clean, Sale talked himself back into the rotation and then was starting again May 12.
"When that happened, he used some words to describe his elbow that kind of sent up a red flag," said Cooper, who couldn't remember the exact words. "It was a miscommunication in some ways about how much (discomfort) he was actually feeling."
While everyone was still on red alert, Sale has put together a Cy Young candidate season with no sign of slowing down.
On Wednesday, Sale was brilliant. He threw 64 pitches through the first five while striking out seven and giving up two hits, both doubles. But then he gave up a solo homer to Derek Jeter in the sixth. Home runs have been a recent problem for Sale. Over his first 16 starts, he gave up five home runs. Over the last six starts, he's given up nine, including two apiece in three straight games before Wednesday.
Pierzynski said the pitch to Jeter was the only bad one Sale threw all game.
"He throws pitches and I don't know half the time what's coming, so that makes it hard," Pierzynski said. "Sometimes I call fastball ... and he'll throw it 85 and the next one will be 94. One cuts, one sinks and one goes straight. So it's just kind of a guessing game out there."
As Sale worked the plate and Pierzynski, the Yankees were frustrated all game, arguing with home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski.
Sale, who is 7-0 with a 1.17 ERA over his last eight starts at the Cell, wanted to finish the eighth, but Robin Ventura said he didn't give him a chance to argue.
"I felt great," Sale said. "I wanted to stay in there. Once it starts getting late in the game like that and the pitch count goes up, I feel like adrenaline will get you through that, just being hyped up. If the crowd is into the game, you want to finish the job you started."
While other teams count pitches, the White Sox are counting on Chris Sale to push them into the playoffs.