White Sox

White Sox ace Chris Sale finds a new way to dominate in win over Angels

White Sox ace Chris Sale finds a new way to dominate in win over Angels

It seems strange that Chris Sale — who set a White Sox franchise record for strikeouts in 2015 — would enter a game not looking to rack up forwards and backwards K’s. 

But that was the plan on Wednesday, and Sale excelled with it. The lanky left-hander cruised through seven innings of work to push the White Sox to a 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels in front of 12,785 at U.S. Cellular Field. 

This wasn’t a typically-dominant Sale start, complete with the deluge of swings and misses that’ve been staples for the ace left-hander last four years. He only struck out three — just the second time he’s had fewer than four strikeouts in at least seven innings of work — but held the Angels to just two hits, both ground ball singles off the bat of 2014 AL MVP outfielder Mike Trout. 

“When I came out, I was like, Trout was 2-3 off me with two singles, and I feel like I beat him,” laughed Sale, nodding to Trout’s mega-superstar status. 

But the Angels entered Wednesday striking out in just 15 percent of their collective plate appearances, the lowest rate in baseball. Sale talked during spring training about trying to be more efficient by letting opponents put the ball in play, but on Wednesday, he was essentially forced into it. 

The result was Angels hitters peppering White Sox infielders and outfielders with soft-hit grounders and fly balls, none of which really seemed to pose much of a threat. 

“With a team like that, to be honest with you, it doesn’t make sense to go out there and try to get strikeouts,” catcher Alex Avila said. “They put the ball in play and tend to have good at-bats. So you have to pick your spots. You can run yourself out of a game real quick. You can still pitch well but it could be a five inning game for him.”

[SHOP: Gear up, White Sox fans!]

Sale tipped his cap to the White Sox defense, which he said helped get him an extra inning by making all the plays behind him. 

At the least, that reliability is an improvement from last year’s group, which ranked at or near the bottom of baseball by just about every defensive evaluation, advanced or otherwise. It’s early in the season, and defensive metrics can be wonky in a small sample size, but the White Sox defense looks better to the eye and rates in the top seven in baseball by DRS and UZR. 

Despite setting a franchise record for strikeouts and not issuing many walks or home runs, Sale had a career-worst 3.41 ERA last year. The additions of Austin Jackson, Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie, as well as Adam Eaton’s move to right field, have already provided a major boost to the defense behind Sale. 

Manager Robin Ventura said opposing teams, too, are bound to be more aggressive early in the count given Sale’s propensity to blow them away with two strikes. 

“We do have a pretty good defense right now of guys being able to go get it as well as the approach of (opponents),” Ventura said, “You don't want to wait around too long because if you get yourself in a two-strike count, the odds go up of him punching you out rather you putting it in play.”

Even if Sale continues to focus on being more efficient and generating weak contact, the strikeouts are bound to come. He had nine in his masterful shutout of the Tampa Bay Rays last Friday. It’ll always be a big part of his game.

But Avila talked about working with Sale to dial things up when he needs a strikeout, but not focusing on getting one every at-bat. There will be games and situations in which Sale needs to reach back and keep the ball out of play; there will also be games like Wednesday in which that’s not entirely necessary.

“He’s going to get his strikeouts,” Avila said. “We’re not worried about that. It’s a matter of him being more efficient.”

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

Lucas Giolito relieved to be able to shed No. 1 pitching prospect label

GLENDALE, AZ — You don’t need a scale to see that Lucas Giolito lost some weight in the offseason. As he walks around Camelback Ranch, he just seems lighter. These pounds were shedded thanks to a certain label that has been detached from his name and his being.

“Lucas Giolito, number-one pitching prospect in baseball” is no more.

“Definitely. Big time relief. I carried that title for a while,” Giolito told NBC Sports Chicago. “It was kind of up and down. I was (ranked) 1 at one point. I dropped. I always paid attention to it a little bit moving through the minor leagues.”

Which for any young hurler is risky business. The “best pitching prospect” designation can mess with a pitcher’s psyche and derail a promising career. Giolito was walking a mental tightrope reading those rankings, but after making it back to the majors last season with the White Sox and succeeding, the moniker that seemed to follow him wherever he went has now vanished.

“Looking back on it, that stuff is pretty cool," Giolito said. "It can pump you up and make you feel good about yourself, but in the end the question is, what are you going to do at the big league level? Can you contribute to a team? I’m glad that I finally have the opportunity to do that and all that other stuff is in the rear view."

This wasn’t the case when the White Sox acquired Giolito from the Washington Nationals in the Adam Eaton trade in December 2016. When he arrived at spring training last year, he was carrying around tons of extra baggage in his brain that was weighing him down. Questions about his ability and makeup weren’t helping as he tried living up to such high expectations.

“Yeah, I’d say especially with the trade coming off 2016 where I didn’t perform well at all that year," Giolito said. "I got traded over to a new organization, I still have this label on me of being a top pitching prospect while I’m going to a new place, I’m trying to impress people but at the same time I had a lot of things off mechanically I was trying to fix. Mentally, I was not in the best place as far as pitching went. It definitely added some extra pressure that I didn’t deal with well for a while."

How bad was it for Giolito? Here are some of the thoughts that were scrambling his brain during spring training and beyond last season.

“I saw I wasn’t throwing as hard. I was like, ’Where did my velocity go?’ Oh, it’s my mechanics. My mechanics are bad. I need to fix those,” Giolito said. “Then I’m trying to make adjustments. Why can’t I make this adjustment? It compounds. It just builds and builds and builds and can weigh on you a ton. I was 22 turning 23 later in the year. I didn’t handle it very well. I put a lot of pressure on myself to fix all these different things about my performance, my pitching and trying to do it all in one go instead of just relaxing and remembering, ‘Hey, what am I here for? Why do I play the game?’”

Still, pitching coach Don Cooper wanted to see what he had in his young prospect. So last February, he scheduled him to make his White Sox debut against the Cubs in front of a packed house in Mesa.

“It was kind of like a challenge," Giolito said. "They fill the stadium over there. I’m like, ‘Alright here we go."

Giolito gave up one run, three hits, walked one and struck out two in two innings against the Cubs that day.

“I pitched OK," he said. "I think I gave up a home run to Addison Russell. At the same time, I remember that game like I was forcing things. I might have pitched okay, but I was forcing the ball over the plate instead of relaxing, trusting and letting it happen which is kind of my mantra now. I’m saying that all the time, just having confidence in yourself and letting it go.”

A conversation in midseason with Charlotte Knights pitching coach Steve McCatty, suggested by Cooper, helped turn Giolito’s season around. The lesson for Giolito: whatever you have on the day you take the mound is what you have. Don’t force what isn’t there.

Fortunately for Giolito he has extra pitches in his arsenal, so if the curveball isn’t working (which it rarely did when he came up to the majors last season) he can go to his change-up, fastball, slider, etc.

It’s all part of the learning process, both on the mound and off it. Setbacks are coming. Giolito has already had his share. More will be on the way.

“You want to set expectations for yourself. You want to try and achieve great goals,” he said. “At the same time, it is a game of failure. There’s so much that you have to learn through experience whether that be success or failure. Especially going through the minor leagues. There’s so much that you have to learn and a lot of it is about development. It’s a crazy ride for sure.”

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Rick Hahn gives an update on the state of the White Sox rebuild

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USA TODAY

SportsTalk Live Podcast: Rick Hahn gives an update on the state of the White Sox rebuild

In this episode of the SportsTalk Live Podcast, Danny Parkins (670 The Score), Chris Bleck (ESPN 1000) and Scott King (WGN Radio) join David Kaplan on the panel.

Ryan Pace’s offseason begins. Josh Sitton and Jerrell Freeman are gone, but what will he do with Kyle Fuller?

Plus, Rick Hahn joins Kap from Glendale, Ariz., to discuss the state of the White Sox rebuild, how tough it is to keep their best prospects in the minors and why Jose Abreu is so important for his young team?

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below: