Sunday, September 2, 2012
Full steam ahead with Chris Sale
By Peter Pascarelli
Editor's note: Peter Pascarelli is the chief researcher on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball. Watch tonight's White Sox-Tigers game on ESPN2 and WatchESPN.com at 8 p.m. ET.
Trying to be careful with one of the best young arms in baseball has meant the White Sox frequently have tried to ease the load for Chris Sale in his first season as a starting pitcher by often giving him extra rest between starts and having him twice miss starts to allow for extra recuperation.
The White Sox, however, are not hesitating about having Sale start Sunday night on his normal four days' rest. Furthermore, though Sale is at 157 innings (more than twice what he pitched last year as a reliever), Chicago right now has no plan to curtail the 23-year-old's workload for the remainder of the regular season.
"We're not stupid, we've been careful with Chris all year, monitoring how he feels, how he's throwing and being cautious with him when we felt it was the best way to go," said White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper.
"But we're also trying to win a division title and we're going to need Chris for September. Right now, we don't have any limit for him in mind. We don't have to plan for him to be shut down. We'll be watching him all the time and maybe we'll need to address scaling back things for him at some point. But as of right now, he's going without any limitations."
Sale's rise into the top echelon of AL starters has been speeded by how quickly he has developed a put-away changeup. "His change has become a real good pitch," Cooper said. "He has developed the confidence to throw both that change and his killer slider even when behind in the count and that has made Chris awfully tough.
"Like with everybody, everything starts with his fastball command. People are now saying his velocity might be down, that he's not throwing 95 [mph] like he was earlier in the season. But Chris is still at least at 92 and that's plenty good enough when he's locating like he has been in most of his starts."
Another change for Sale has involved him moving several inches to the third-base side of the rubber to better utilize the running movement of both his changeup and his two-seam fastball.
"We call the angle of approach and what it means is that by moving farther to the right side of the rubber, he can have that change and the two-seamer run back to the inside corner to right-handed hitters," Cooper said. "When he's around the plate with that kind of movement, he gets more swings early in the count and more balls in play which helps his pitch counts."
Chicago has scheduled off days on Sept. 6 and 16 which means Sale will presumably get an extra day off prior to two of his next three starts. The White Sox finish the regular season by playing 16 days in a row, which means Sale would likely come down the stretch pitching on a normal four days' rest prior to his final starts. None of his starts up until now will be as big as Sunday's when Sale will be matched up against Justin Verlander, trying to avoid having the White Sox slide into a first-place tie in the American League Central with Detroit.
• Adam Dunn was scratched from Saturday's lineup due to an oblique strain. Dunn originally injured himself Wednesday in Baltimore, but he tried to play through the injury on both Thursday and Friday, only to feel the discomfort worsen Saturday when he tried working out prior to the game. "If this were an emergency, I could try and play but it really was worse today than it's been," Dunn said. "I hate not playing, but I probably should have sat on Thursday and by now the thing might be all right." Dunn thinks he'll play Sunday, benefiting from treatment Saturday and all day Sunday. However, oblique injuries are known to be difficult to shake, so the White Sox will be holding their breath the next few days. Dunn's 38 home runs lead the majors, two ahead of Milwaukee's Ryan Braun, Texas' Josh Hamilton and Toronto's Edwin Encarnacion.
• Among Chicago's handful of Sept. 1 roster additions is veteran 1B/DH Dan Johnson, whose claims to fame in an otherwise nondescript major league career are some memorable clutch home runs for both Oakland and Tampa Bay, none more so than on the final day of the 2011 season when Johnson's line drive in the ninth inning just tucked itself inside the right-field foul pole at Tropicana Field for one of the cheapest homers one can hit in a major league stadium. That homer brought the Rays all the way back from a 7-0 deficit versus the Yankees and sent the game into extra innings, a game that Tampa Bay eventually won to knock the Red Sox out of the playoffs. Johnson filled in for Dunn as the White Sox's DH on Saturday night, going 1-for-3.
• Chicago's other roster additions were pitchers Deunte Heath, Brian Omogrosso and Leyson Septimo, all of whom saw action in the White Sox' 5-1 loss Saturday night, and veteran infielder Orlando Hudson, who had been on a minor league rehab assignment. Backup catcher Tyler Flowers rejoined the club Saturday after being away for the birth of his first child. Earlier in the week, Chicago added veteran infielder Jose Lopez to the roster. Lopez had been signed to a minor league contract two weeks ago after being released by Cleveland. Lopez once hit 28 home runs in a season for Seattle and was an All-Star in 2006.
• The White Sox could get a more important addition Sunday if center fielder Alejandro De Aza returns from an injury rehab assignment, as expected. De Aza has played well in his first season as an everyday center fielder, hitting .281 with 24 doubles, five triples, six home runs and 21 stolen bases while scoring 73 runs, third most for Chicago. De Aza has been out since mid-August due to bruised ribs. In his absence, veteran Dewayne Wise has played well, batting .280 with three homers and 11 RBIs in 19 games.
• The White Sox have lost the first two games of their key three-game series with the Tigers, and trouble in Detroit has become a regular thing for Chicago. With Saturday's loss, the Sox have lost 11 of their past 12 at Comerica Park and 17 of their past 20, being outscored 121-55 in the stretch. Chicago has lost eight of its past nine road games and is just 8-16 in its past 24 games away from the South Side. One reason for Chicago's troubles this weekend has been clutch hitting, usually a White Sox strong point. The Sox went 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position on Friday and Saturday combined. They entered the weekend leading the majors in batting with runners in scoring position with a .287 average.
With an eye on the postseason, the Tigers recalled highly regarded 21-year-old outfielder Avisail Garcia on Friday instead of on Sept. 1 when rosters expanded. Adding Garcia to the roster on Aug. 31 makes him eligible for the playoffs, if the Tigers get there. Detroit traded infielder Jeff Baker to Atlanta to make immediate room on the 25-man roster, which after Sept. 1 can expand to as many as 40 players.
Garcia, along with third baseman/outfielder Alex Castellanos, is considered Detroit's most talented prospect. He debuted Friday as a defensive replacement and started Saturday in right field, going 1-for-3 with an RBI. Needing some right-handed help in the lineup, Tigers manager Jim Leyland plans to play Garcia in right against left-handed starting pitchers. This presumably means he'll play on Sunday when the Tigers face Chris Sale.
Inserting a rookie who has never played above Double-A into the middle of a pennant race is not out of the ordinary for Leyland, who has always said that if he has a choice between talent and experience, he will almost always prefer talent. That was evident in 2006, Leyland's first year as Tigers manager, when he lobbied throughout spring training to begin the season with then 23-year-old Justin Verlander in the starting rotation, even though Verlander had pitched just one year professionally. Verlander went on to go 17-9 in his rookie season for a Tigers club that went to the World Series.
Not surprisingly, Leyland was as excited about Garcia's debut as was the 21-year-old rookie himself. "He's a terrific prospect with power, defensive ability, speed and throwing arm," Leyland said. "I love this, bringing a kid here with great talent and seeing what he can do. I'm thrilled to death to be able to play the kid. He could come in here and give us a spark. Maybe he won't. But he's going to get the chance to try and I'm really looking forward to watching how he does."
Detroit's decision to take a look at Garcia is likely to further reduce the amount of playing time in right field for Brennan Boesch, who has been among the most disappointing Tigers players this season. There is already speculation that next spring Boesch, if he's not non-tendered in the winter, will likely be ticketed for the minors.
The Tigers are expected to look hard over the winter for a veteran outfielder, preferably a right-handed hitter, with Boesch falling into disfavor and with the Tigers almost certainly to not re-sign free agent Delmon Young, who embarrassed the franchise earlier in the season after he was arrested in New York for making anti-Semitic remarks. Young has been hot of late -- he's 4-for-7 in the first two games of the series against the White Sox with a double, triple, homer and four RBIs and over his past seven games has gone 12-for-27.
• One of Justin Verlander's especially impressive weapons is his ability to cruise early in games with his fastball staying in the low 90s and then later, in crunch situations, crank up the gas and starting throwing 97-100. "Early in the game, I'm concentrating on hitting my spots more than anything and so I'll throttle down some to make sure I'm getting into a groove with location and pitch more to contact," Verlander said. "That not only helps me get some quicker outs early in the game, but it also builds a platform for me to be able to throw harder later in the game with the same location."
• Verlander seems unbothered by being just 12-7 despite overall numbers, such as ERA and strikeouts, that are very comparable to his 2011 numbers when he went 24-5. "You need some luck to get that many wins, no matter how well you pitch," Verlander said. "My goal every time out is to give us a chance to win. And whether it's me or one of the relievers who gets the W doesn't matter."
• Detroit used the Sept. 1 roster expansion to add some familiar players, including infielder/outfielder Don Kelly, infielder Danny Worth, catcher Bryan Holaday and reliever Luis Marte, all of whom have played for Detroit at some point this season. The Tigers also added Ryan Raburn, who had been on an injury rehab assignment due to a thumb sprain from which he's recovered. Leyland had considered starting Raburn on Saturday because Raburn had past success against White Sox starter Francisco Liriano. Raburn, however, was kept out of the game because he has a strained quad.
• On Sunday, the Tigers will add reliever Al Alburquerque, who has been in the minors rehabbing after undergoing elbow surgery after last season (due to a roster technicality, he could not be added on Sept. 1). Before being injured, Alburquerque was 6-1 with a 1.87 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 43⅓ innings. "I love having him back," Leyland said. "The reports say in his last minor league game, he was throwing 95 to 97 with that good slider and change. He gives me another big power arm for those late innings." Leyland's bullpen will be well-rested for Sunday night. Only Jose Valverde pitched out of the bullpen Saturday; only Octavio Dotel, who has a 1.66 ERA in his past 16 appearances, was not available Saturday and he will now be ready for Sunday.
• Verlander rightly gets most of the attention on the Detroit pitching staff. But no one has pitched better of late than Max Scherzer, whose dominating eight-inning performance on Saturday turned into his fifth straight win. In those five starts, Scherzer has pitched 35 innings, allowing just four runs and 25 hits while walking nine and striking out 44. With nine strikeouts on Saturday, Scherzer retook the AL strikeout lead from Verlander. Scherzer now has 204 strikeouts while Verlander, with 198, will likely to move back into the strikeout lead after Sunday.
• Miguel Cabrera was again back at third base on Saturday, despite having a painful right ankle that has greatly limited his already poor mobility in the field and on the bases. Despite the injury, Cabrera's latest monster season rolls on. Cabrera is 6-for-8 with four RBIs in the first two games of the series against the White Sox. He's hitting .332 for the season with 33 homers and 111 RBIs. Cabrera trails batting leader Mike Trout by four points, RBI leader Josh Hamilton by one and home run leader Adam Dunn by five. The home run gap might be too large to overcome, though Dunn may miss some games with his oblique injury. With a month left to play in the regular season, however, Cabrera maintains a reasonable chance at winning the Triple Crown, a feat that was last accomplished in 1967 by Carl Yastrzemski.
• Scouts for potential playoff teams are starting their work in advance of the postseason and three have been in attendance this weekend in Detroit. All three scouts agree that the White Sox and Tigers are pretty much evenly matched in terms of lineups and pitching. The big difference, however, between the two clubs is defense. The White Sox are second in the majors with a .987 fielding percentage and have allowed a major league-low 26 unearned runs. By comparison, the Tigers, who are near the bottom of the majors in defensive analytics, have allowed 62 unearned runs.