BALTIMORE - Everything in White Sox Land looks pretty clean when Chris Sale is on top of his game.
On Thursday afternoon, the team’s ace made a sloppy product look shiny and new in a 3-2 White Sox win over the Baltimore Orioles in the first game of a doubleheader. With his bullpen in need of a lift, Sale struck out a season-high 12 batters over 7 2/3 scoreless innings at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche had RBI doubles in the sixth inning as the White Sox won for only the third time in 10 tries. Jake Petricka struck out Travis Snider to earn the save as White Sox pitchers struck out 16.
“(Sale) just had a real good feel for it,” manager Robin Ventura said. “He wasn’t all-out effort and I think that was because he had the soft stuff going. He felt great. He wanted to go back out there. Where we’re at right now with the doubleheader, you like that he wanted to go back out there.”
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The White Sox are in the midst of a stretch in which they play 18 times in 17 days. Not only that, but closer David Robertson was off limits in the opening game after he pitched in parts of four innings over the previous two games.
So with a warm, muggy afternoon and Sale flying, Ventura asked his ace if he could return in the eighth inning even though he was already at 108 pitches. The Florida native quickly answered yes.
“You get a doubleheader, you want to get as far into the game as you can,” Sale said. “This (weather) is what I grew up in. This is what I played every game of baseball in pretty much before college, so it was nice to get hot and get a little sweat going and stay loose.”
Sale looked at ease, especially in the eighth.
Holding on to a 2-0 lead, he returned to the mound and needed 12 pitches to strike out Caleb Joseph and Everth Cabrera, both on 96-mph fastballs, before he turned it over to the bullpen.
Accompanied by a wicked slider, Sale mostly had his way with the Orioles until the seventh inning.
He struck out the side in the first inning and only surrendered a broken-bat, infield single his first time through the order. Sale worked around the middle of Baltimore’s lineup in the fourth inning and then struck out five in a row starting in the fifth, facing two over the minimum through six.
Headed into Thursday, his ninth start, Sale had only used the slider 11 percent of the time this season, according to brooksbaseball.net. But he used it liberally against the Orioles, throwing it 28 times in 120 pitches.
“I think (Tyler Flowers) saw that early, where my breaking ball was a little better than it has been this year,” Sale said. “I was just following his lead.”
The White Sox held their advantage when Sale pitched out of his only trouble spot in the seventh.
After a leadoff single by Adam Jones, Sale struck out Delmon Young and got Chris Davis to hit into a fielder’s choice. Sale gave up a single to Steve Pearce but J.J. Hardy fouled out. Sale allowed four hits and didn’t walk any batters marking the fifth time in his career he has had a double-digit strikeout performance and no walks.
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For a while it looked like Sale could be headed for a no decision as Orioles rookie Tyler Wilson put up a strong start of his own. He retired Cabrera with two on to end the third inning and set down the White Sox 3-4-5 hitters in order in the fourth. But Adam Eaton drew a leadoff walk in the sixth and was running on the first pitch when Cabrera pushed a double into the left-field corner, allowing Eaton to score from first. It was only Cabera’s fourth extra-base hit of the season. One out later, LaRoche, who went 3-for-4, doubled to deep center to make it 2-0.
The White Sox added an insurance run in the ninth on Flowers’ RBI fielder’s choice. The run became critical when Davis hit a two-run homer off Zach Duke, who struck out three, with two outs in the ninth.
“It’s warming up,” Ventura said. “(Flowers’ RBI is) a big run. It’s always a big run when you can add on late, just to get that little bit of extra cushion.”