Chris Sale’s 98th and final pitch of Sunday’s game was a 98 mile per hour fastball, one that whizzed past the bat of Trevor Plouffe for strike three.
And with that, the left-hander’s return to the top of the White Sox rotation was complete.
Sale struck out eight in six innings of work to lead the White Sox to a 6-2 win over Minnesota in Sunday’s rubber match in front of 23,057 at U.S. Cellular Field. The 26-year-old allowed one run on five hits with one walk in his first start against a major league club — including in spring training — since last September.
“He looked great,” manager Robin Ventura said. “There’s nothing else to say. It was vintage him.”
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Sale largely relied on his mid-to-upper 90’s fastball and upper-80’s changeup, as his slider wasn’t sharp over the course of the afternoon. Sale only threw 10 sliders and didn’t get a swing and miss on any of them, but it didn’t matter — his changeup generated six swings and misses and his fastball got 14 whiffs, according to BrooksBaseball.net.
Despite having only thrown a handful of bullpen sessions and faced a pair of Single-A squads to get ready for the season after an avulsion fracture in his foot kept him out of spring training games, Sale threw 72 of his 98 pitches for strikes.
“I think it’s somewhat typical of a dominant pitcher in this league,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. I’m sure (Clayton) Kershaw and all those guys have similar numbers when they’re out there, at least on their good outings. You kind of set the tone right out of the gate throwing strikes, very aggressive, he was commanding them early too so that makes it tougher on those guys.”
The White Sox jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on an RBI single from Adam LaRoche and an RBI double from Alexei Ramirez in the first inning, and after Danny Santana doubled in a run in the top of third, LaRoche answered with a solo home run in the bottom half, his second of the season. Sale said getting that early advantage helped him get into a rhythm, which translated into him notching the White Sox first quality start of the season.
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As he and Ventura have reiterated over the course of his month-and-a-half recovery, Sale’s injury was confined to his foot and didn’t involve anything to really worry about like an elbow or shoulder. Sale and the White Sox followed a slow, calculated recovery plan — one that created enough down time for the left-hander to binge-watch "Breaking Bad" and increase his arsenal of knock-knock jokes — so when he did take the mound Sunday, he said he felt like his injury never happened.
Sale’s strong start, along with some gutsy relief work by Zach Duke and a two-run insurance home run by Gordon Beckham, gave the White Sox their first series win of the season. After an 0-4 start caused some early restlessness, the White Sox are back to blasting celebratory music in the clubhouse — Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” was on the playlist Sunday — and things seem to be returning to normal for the long haul of the regular season.
And normal for Sale means, after a strong start, fielding questions about how good a pitcher he can be. If he can keep this up, the early Cy Young talk surely won’t be far around the corner, even if he isn’t too willing to entertain it.
“I’m just a pitcher,” Sale said. “You guys (the media) have all these questions for me like I can read the future and have all the answers. I’m a baseball player. I want to go out and play baseball and do the best I can. That’s all I’ve ever done and all I’m ever going to do. All the extra stuff is cool and fine, but I’ll stick to being a baseball player.”