CHICAGO -- It’s one thing to get the honor of an Opening Day start, but games like Sunday’s are how guys end up with the label of staff ace.
With the Chicago White Sox reeling this season from sloppy defense, a terrible offense and an overall effort that warranted a team meeting Saturday, Chris Sale stepped up against the Los Angeles Angels and carried his weary club for a night.
Sale has shown staff-ace stuff before, but he did it emphatically Sunday, when he took a perfect game into the seventh inning and finished off the first shutout of his career by facing 28 batters, one over the minimum.
That he did it in front of a national audience and against a star-studded -- albeit so far disappointing -- lineup, showed the kind of moxie common among pitchers bestowed that ace tag.
“I just think he likes the big games,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “I guarantee he knows everyone was watching on ESPN. [Pitching coach Don Cooper] actually said something to me that you see who the true competitors are and the true winners are when they get in the big situations against a pretty good pitcher on the other side, too.
“You see what a pitcher is really made of in those situations, and I like that he enjoys it.”
The lone hit Sale allowed was a clean ground-ball single to center field by last season’s American League rookie of the year, Mike Trout, with one out in the seventh inning. The only other baserunner was Chris Iannetta, who reached first on an error and was quickly erased on a double play.
When it was over, Sale claimed to put no added emphasis on the moment -- essentially dismissing the notion that his team needed a huge effort, while unfazed over the fact that among those watching around the country on Mother’s Day were family and friends back home in Florida.
“I wouldn’t say that I want to put it on me,” Sale said. “I try not to pack myself down with pressure. I try to go out there and be myself and pitch my game. However it shakes out, it shakes out.
“Whatever game we have, how many we’ve lost or won in a row, I try to go out there and be myself and pitch my game ... and hopefully it works out.”
Aside from one start this season when he was crushed for eight runs in less than five innings against the Cleveland Indians, it has worked out just fine for Sale. In his five starts since that outing he hasn’t given up more than two runs. And over his past two starts, he has given up just one run total.
“He just had a good rhythm throwing strikes with all of them,” manager Robin Ventura said. “It wasn’t just one pitch. I think you have some games where you see him miss early and he just wasn’t. He was on everything. They were aggressive early and probably for good reason, just because he kind of had that feel.”
The White Sox had their own issues scoring, though, finally breaking through in the seventh inning when Alexei Ramirez had a two-run single and Alex Rios delivered an RBI double. Sale didn’t skip a beat through it all, while also extending his run without a walk to 22 1/3 innings.
“You know what, when he’s on he’s unbelievable,” said the Angels’ Josh Hamilton, who flew out twice and grounded out in his three at-bats. “He mixes his pitches well. He can throw the 89 [mph] little two-seam sinker, arm-side run, whatever. And then he can pump 94 to 95.”
“So, it’s almost like you’ve got to give up one to kind of focus on something else,” he said. “So, pick off-speed or pick heater or whatever. You’ll probably see some swings like I never picked one.”
It was the second consecutive outing for Sale in which he helped the White Sox avoid a sweep. It’s not the type of thing that screams World Series contender, but it does show the type of guts displayed by the individual.
“That was definitely needed, and the three runs, that good offensive inning there was needed, too,” Flowers said. “That was a quality ballclub, and we played them tough all three games. It's good to come out on the other end of the situation.”
Sale said he didn’t shake off Flowers once in the outing. Afterward, Flowers was second-guessing his pitch selection on Trout’s hit. He got the sinker he requested, thinking Trout would be looking changeup. Flowers wondered if a changeup would have got Trout to ground out to shortstop.
“I don't think it was too much excitement,” Flowers said. “It was more nervousness, really trying to focus and recall and think of every pitch that would work on different guys. Because, like I said, that's a heck of a lineup over there and you can't make any mistakes and you can't pitch them the same way every at-bat.”
“You have to change it up and give them different looks and change sights and elevate and all that good stuff,” he said. “It was pretty nerve-wracking and I imagine it would have been more nerve-racking without that hit.”
At least one player on the Angels thought Sale might make history Sunday. Opposing starter C.J. Wilson felt as if he had watched this film before.
“I remember a couple of years ago, [Mark] Buehrle threw a no-hitter against us when I was with the Rangers, and this kind of had that same feel to it,” Wilson said. “Makes you nervous, like walk or get a hit or something. If this dude throws a perfect game, it’s going to be awful.”
“I gave up a hit right away so, obviously, I wasn’t throwing a no-hitter,” he said. “It was a really well-pitched game and Sale just had video-game stuff tonight. He’s got electric stuff, four pitches, they’re all nasty, and he was pounding the zone tonight. It was a rough night for us.”