Chris Sale has a 2.02 ERA against National League opponents during his six-year career, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise given the way members of the St. Louis Cardinals talked about the White Sox ace.
Sale won’t face the Cardinals, who have the best record in baseball, during this week’s brief two-game series at U.S. Cellular Field. But the 26-year-old struck out 12 over eight innings of one-run ball against St. Louis June 30 at Busch Stadium and left a strong impression on some of the guys he faced.
“He throws 95, 97 (miles per hour), and he’s deceptive so that makes it even more of a challenge,” outfielder Peter Bourjos said. “Usually the guys that are deceptive are the guys that are in that 88-90 range. Not only is he deceptive, but he throws hard with good movement and good stuff. All that combines with him locating, and it makes it a very challenging at-bat.”
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Bourjos, though, had the benefit of previously facing Sale while he played for the Los Angeles Angels. Outfielder Randal Grichuk faced Sale for the first time June 30 and described the challenge of preparing for the lanky left-hander.
“A lot of the video footage isn’t straight behind (home plate), so you don’t realize how far he’s throwing over from the first base side and how it comes kind of from out of nowhere,” Grichuk, who went 3-4 with a home run off Sale, said. “It’s a lot different seeing him live versus on video.
“He steps over so you can’t really see it when it’s coming, it just kind of comes out of there.”
First baseman Mark Reynolds said even if a hitter has prior experience against Sale, adjusting to his three-quarters arm slot and deceptive motion — Sale does a good job hiding the ball during his delivery — isn’t easy the first time through the order. And Reynolds is right: In his career as a starter, Sale is limiting opponents to a .211 batting average and .586 OPS with 291 strikeouts the first time he faces them.
So what’s the plan of attack for a hitter facing Sale?
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“You just try to wait for him to make a mistake,” Bourjos said. “I think that’s the plan against a lot of good pitches, hopefully they make a mistake and you’re able to execute on it because the top-tier pitches don’t make too many and I think the same thing with (Clayton) Kershaw, you’re waiting for one of those pitches out over and hopefully you can take advantage of it.”
Said Reynolds: “You just gotta look fastball and react to everything else. And then it’s tough to catch up to 97.”
Given his tall, skinny build, blazing fastball and ability to rack up strikeouts, Sale’s been compared to Randy Johnson by plenty of people around baseball — White Sox manager Robin Ventura included. Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, who faced Johnson more times than any other pitcher during his 13-year career, said it’s fair to draw a line between the two pitchers.
“Yeah, I see that,” Matheny said. “Left side, different arm angle, hides the ball and explosive strikeout stuff. That pretty much explains it.”