As White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper puts it, the White Sox are working on transitioning Chris Sale from being one of the "baddest-ass lefty relievers in the league" to fulfilling his potential as a top-of-the-line starter.
Boston tried the same transition with Daniel Bard, who was sent back to Triple-A earlier this month. Neftali Feliz appears bound to return to the Rangers' bullpen when he returns from the disabled list. And even Jeff Samardzija was lit up by Minnesota for eight runs on Saturday. Making the transition from the bullpen to rotation isn't easy.
But Sale keeps making it look just that: easy. He threw eight shutout innings on Saturday, striking out seven while allowing no walks and four hits, all singles. In the process, he lowered his league-leading ERA to 2.05.
"We were just talking and someone asked if you need more from him," relayed Cooper before the game. "No, we dont need more. Close to what he's doing would be par for the course today."
If that's par for the course, an in-his-prime Tiger Woods would struggle to break even. In Sale's previous two starts, he nearly set a franchise record for strikeouts and followed that up with his first complete game.
"He's tough to hit against because he has a lot of different things he can throw," manager Robin Ventura explained. "I think a lot of people believe he just goes out and throws 98, 99, that's not what he does. He actually pitches, hits corners, creates angles and things like that that make him extremely tough. He's managing that by not having to max out on every pitch."
That pitching ability isn't found in everyone who can throw a high 90's fastball. But it's something that hasn't gone unnoticed by Sale's teammates.
"Ill tell you the most impressive thing that hes doing is hell throw a fastball 87 mph and then 95 mph," Adam Dunn said. "Hes not just throwing now. Hes pitching. For him to figure it out so quick, hes not max effort every single time. Hes pitching. Its scary."
Sale wasn't allowed to finish off what would've been his first shutout, though. He threw 101 pitches over eight innings, and with a comfortable lead over the Astros that ballooned to 10 on Dunn's grand slam, Sale was given the ninth inning off.
"I think today he probably could have finished," Ventura said. "But you're looking at the day, a warm day. He's got an extra day of rest so instead of letting him go out there and do 120, he's right around 100. So we just let Zach Stewart finish that up for him."
Sox fans, coaches and players alike held their breath for a few seconds when Sale awkwardly tumbled to the ground after being hit in his left heel with a comebacker off the bat of Jed Lowrie in the sixth. Luckily for the Sox, Sale popped right back up with a giant grin on his face as Ventura and head trainer Herm Schneider raced out to the mound.
"It's not like he has a lot of meat to take that stuff so I'm glad it was in the shoe," deadpanned Ventura.
"Yeah, I continue to keep looking unathletic out there as a fielder and trying to dodge balls," joked Sale.
But keeping Sale healthy isn't a laughing matter for the White Sox. With his eight innings of work, Sale has now thrown more innings this season than he did as a reliever in 2011. He had to argue his way out of being moved to the bullpen when he experienced a minor elbow issue in May, and it's a good thing he did. The Sox will, however, continue to closely monitor his every move and do whatever they can to keep him on the mound.
"He's getting extra days now," Cooper said. "Believe me, everything we can do to keep him healthy and strong and keep him going out there and doing what he's doing, it's getting taken care of."
An interesting debate would be how the White Sox would handle an All-Star berth for Sale. With the Sox looking to give Sale as much rest as possible, seeing him throw an inning -- or two, if he gets the start, which he very well might -- could be a little nerve-wracking. But if it fits into his normal throwing schedule, an inning or two certainly couldn't hurt.
"That would be awesome," Sale said of being named to the All-Star team. "You always think about those things as a kid, stuff like that. But at the same time, we got a ways to go before any of that stuff even starts happening. If I start looking toward that, I'll lose focus of what I got in front of me, and what I got in front of me is L.A. right now. I'm going to start preparing for that one tomorrow."
There's still a month between now and the best players in baseball descending on Kansas City. And while Sale has kept his stranglehold on leading the AL in ERA, that's not anything he's really concerned with.
"I'm not one to really look at my stats or anything like that," Sale said. "It really doesn't do anything for you if you have a five or a one ERA, you still gotta go out there and pitch and get outs. I keep saying it over and over, but that's my main focus, going out and making pitches and giving this team a chance to win."
The Sox have won eight of Sale's 11 starts, and six of his eight wins this season have come after a Sox loss. While Cooper would rather Sale be a pitcher that continues winning streaks, he's proven to be someone who can stop losing skids.
"He has a lot of that ability," Ventura said of Sale being the team's stopper. "Any time he pitches, whether you won or lost the day before, you feel like you're going to win his game."