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Monday, April 1, 2013
The start of something?

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- Before the 2013 season started Monday, second-year manager Robin Ventura said the Chicago White Sox had only one goal.

"I want to get to the playoffs," he said.

Sounds simple enough. Anything else after you make it? Opening Day is for dreamers and all.

"I'd figure that out when we get there," Ventura said. "But that's the first thing that needs to happen."

So, no, the Sox weren't happy to win 85 games and give Detroit a good scare last season. And no, they're not completely satisfied with being an "under-the-radar" team this year.

"There's a little chip," Ventura said. "You take that hit and then it becomes personal. It's good for me that it happens to these guys because it's easy to rally them together and have the motivation come after that. But I think the initial hit to it is it becomes personal."

Kenny Williams, now promoted upstairs, and Ozzie Guillen, now unemployed, were experts at the "Us Against the World" ethos. Things are a little quieter now, though. General manager Rick Hahn is the public face of the front office, Ventura the quiet leader of the team, and Opening Day starter Chris Sale is the most talented player. This might be more of an actions-speak-louder-than-words kind of club.

Chris Sale
White Sox lefty Chris Sale threw 7 2/3 shutout innings in his first Opening Day start on Monday.

At least whenever Jake Peavy isn't talking.

But so far, so good.

In his first outing as the team's all-but official ace, Sale threw 7 2/3 shutout innings, the Sox played stellar defense, and Tyler Flowers homered in the 1-0 season-opening win over the Kansas City Royals.

Was this the blueprint for a successful season?

"I hope we get more than one run," Flowers said with a perfect deadpan delivery.

The Sox hope their offense isn't an homage to the 1983 "Winning Ugly" team, but 1-0 victories can be important, said a wise old clubhouse sage who was around for the club's World Series championship in 2005.

"The team in '05, the thing about that team was when we were in a one-run game, we felt very comfortable," Paul Konerko said. "That seemed normal to us. That only came by, obviously, being in a lot of them, and winning them, and you kind of just felt comfortable with that."

The Sox were 35-19 in one-run games during the World Series year. Last year, they were 26-21.

"A lot of times you look at the team's record and you look at the one-run ballgames," Konerko said. "Whatever that record is swings that team from being a really good team to just kind of a mediocre team."

The Sox were smart to wrap up a new deal for Sale in spring training, signing the 24-year-old left-hander to a five-year deal that guarantees him $32.5 million and could expand to $60 million. That's not bank-breaking money by baseball standards.

Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander just got a contract worth the GDP of Detroit. Dodgers stud Clayton Kershaw's new deal could include the new NFL franchise in Los Angeles.

Sale doesn't have their bonafides, not even close, and now he has to live up to bigger expectations. Sale said the contract is in the past now, but all the deep breaths and post-game bromides about teamwork will have to do battle with human nature.

"Any time you put too much thought or emphasis on things, sometimes it can derail," Sale said. "That was the biggest thing for me to look at this as another start."

There wasn't much to pick apart about Sale's first season as a starter, 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA doesn't tell the whole story but it's a nice outline, but like any young pitcher he tends to ramp up his pitches in a jam.

"He does have a tendency when he gets in trouble to throw it harder and try and do more," Flowers said. "Believe it or not, the last at-bat he had, that base hit (by Alcides Escobar), I was trying to calm him down because I could see it starting to happen. He was getting quicker in between pitches, his windup gets quicker and then he starts leaving stuff over the plate. I was calming him down."

That meant it was a good time to pull him. For the most part, Ventura liked Sale's demeanor.

"Today, he was very efficient," Ventura said. "I think last year he would probably reach back and try to throw it harder at times. I think he's a more mature kid as far as pitching and being effective, efficient through innings. I looked up to see how many pitches he had probably in the fifth or sixth, and last year it probably would've been 20 pitches higher. I think it's maturity that allows him to do that."

Sale threw 104 pitches before getting pulled in the eighth. He allowed seven hits and struck out seven, walking only one. The Sox turned two double plays behind him, including an inning-ender in the seventh, which was preceded by a stellar defensive play from Gordon Beckham. Beckham might never hit like a Gold Glove winner, but the defense is right up there.

"We call him the 'Maniac,'" Sale said.

Before Jerry Reinsdorf commissions another statue, Sale still has to grow into his role. Good health willing, he has no restrictions this year and a lot more expectations.

"I think a lot of stuff has been thrown at him during spring training," Ventura said. "He gets the contract, gets the Opening Day, there's a lot of expectations of him. It all comes with it. For me, you look at what the older guys on the staff have done to kind of help him along and take him under the wing. Peavy has done a good job of having a little tutelage in creating him and (pitching coach Don Cooper) and everybody else. The players kind of mold the other players and he's come along great. He's able to handle that because of all that -- the contract, what he did last year, Opening Day. It's fun to see."

Sale is a little looser now with the media, more comfortable talking about himself. That's all part of the process. He said John Danks, currently on the 15-day disabled list, helped talk him through his Opening Day start. And Peavy, well, what advice has the deep-fried poet/warrior given young Sale?

"How long you got?" Sale said, laughing. "He's been awesome since Day 1. I'm very fortunate to be able to come into a clubhouse like this, with guys like him and John and Matt (Thornton), and a plethora of other guys. You kind of become the people you're around, I'm very thankful I'm around these people."