Whenever Chris Sale takes the mound, White Sox manager Robin Ventura feels as if he’s handing the keys to a flashy sports car over to his catcher.
Given it was the Ferrari’s first time out of the garage in five weeks Tyler Flowers knew it was upon him on Thursday night to keep Sale from redlining.
Though the White Sox ace sputtered ever so briefly, Sale reigned in a more than a month’s worth of emotions in a triumphant return to the track. Sale blew the New York Yankees’ doors off for six innings and the White Sox held on for a 3-2 victory in front of 21,677 at U.S. Cellular Field.
Though he made it look easy, Sale, who struck out 10 and faced only one batter over the minimum after he set down the first 17 he faced, said his biggest obstacle was himself.
“A lot of it was trying not to get overhyped, especially with being the first one back and the team we were facing and all the other things involved,” Sale said. “Just trying to really focus on the task at hand and not get too overwhelmed or too overhyped.”
Sale has always been an emotional figure on the mound.
As he neared his first start since April 17, Sale skipped off the field Tuesday in Kansas City after a light bullpen session, the final step in a five-week recovery.
Flowers had an idea the two-time All-Star might be wound up when he took the mound in the first inning.
Sale confirmed those suspicions when he yanked his first pitch, a 94-mph fastball, to Jacoby Ellsbury out of the zone for a ball.
The lack of pinpoint control continued throughout the five-pitch at-bat, but it didn’t stop Sale from striking out Ellsbury.
“Usually he has the mannerisms where I have to calm him down,” Flowers said. “Those seem to be his better outings and they come with some of the non-competitive pitches and that’s when he gets too jacked up and he gets too competitive. You have to back him off a little bit to let his mechanics and everything sink up.
“First hitter of the game I had to do. He yanked a couple of heaters right out of the gate. I was telling him the second pitch to the fifth pitch, ‘Calm down. Calm down.’ ”
Sale managed his emotions pretty well from there.
He struck out the side in the first inning on 18 pitches - including future Hall of Famer Derek Jeter with a called third strike - and didn’t look back.
Rarely did the Yankees make even decent contact against Sale, who featured a three-pitch mix and threw strikes on 54 of 86 pitches. Sale struck out the side in the third inning and followed by striking out Ellsbury and Jeter to start the fourth.
As Sale’s perfect run continued into the sixth, you could almost sense the entire organization tensing up given Sale was making his first start in the majors since he threw a career-high 127 pitches.
Ventura said Wednesday that Sale likely wouldn’t reach the 100-pitch mark. Nobody clarified the exact figure but Sale suspected he had only 90 pitches to work. But all that became a moot point when Zoilo Almonte singled with two outs in the sixth inning.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to give up a hit in my life,” Sale joked. “I knew I was done after that sixth. (Robin said) ‘You picked a bad night to do something like that.’ It was all in fun.”
With New York trailing 2-0, Almonte stole second base but was stranded when Sale struck out Ellsbury for the third time.
Combined with his rehab start at Triple-A Charlotte last Friday, Sale (4-0) has retired 30 of 34 batters, including 21 on strikeouts, over 10 scoreless innings.
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Ventura wasn’t surprised by the performance, nor by Sale’s zest for his craft.
“When you're sitting on the DL and you’re watching guys play, you miss it,” Ventura said. “I think for somebody like him that's a competitor, that's part of it for him. He enjoys pitching and he was excited.”
The White Sox offense made Sale’s return victorious even though his counterpart David Phelps was sharp.
Alejandro De Aza doubled in a run with two outs in the second inning and Adam Eaton, who had two hits, singled in another.
The White Sox added a run in the eighth inning on Adam Dunn’s two-out, RBI single.
White Sox reliever Ronald Belisario surrendered a pair of runs but struck out Alfonso Soriano with the tying run aboard.
Asked how Sale handled, Flowers was mostly impressed. He liked how Sale executed late in the count but said he could have conserved more pitches.
Still, Flowers thought Sale showed little rust — hardly anything that would require a tune-up.
“Not bad,” Flowers said.