CHICAGO -- Rarely is Chris Sale an underdog, but the left-hander seems to be relishing the against-the-odds role as the 2014 season winds to a close.
Set to face only contenders down the stretch, which started with the Oakland Athletics on Thursday, Sale might be one of the American League’s best pitchers, but he isn’t exactly playing with a team well-versed in winning right now.
And if his game-by-game odds aren’t long enough, he is also trying to battle for the American League Cy Young Award against a pitcher in Seattle’s Felix Hernandez who has the benefit of a playoff chase working for him.
“I think it's always helped a guy that’s in a pennant race to have that,” said manager Robin Ventura, as he tried to size up the Cy Young odds. “For Chris, he's as good as anybody in the league. I think he's always going to be up there in those talks. How that's all voted on, somebody else is going to have to do that. For me, he's up there with anybody.”
If Cy Young voters entered the day split on whether Sale or Hernandez will get their vote, the White Sox’s lefty might have just gained some backers. The A’s might be fading in the playoff chase, but that’s still a contending team that Sale dominated Thursday in a 1-0 White Sox victory, and one that had been one of the better hitting teams in the game not all that long ago.
Sale simply rolled over Oakland, giving up two hits over eight scoreless innings, all while dropping his season ERA to an AL-leading 1.99. As if that attention-getting ERA isn’t enough, Sale entered with the AL lead in strikeouts per nine innings (10.63), and was second in win percentage (.786) and WHIP (0.94).
“It’s cool, but I’m not a numbers guy,” Sale said. “I don’t care about that stuff, the strikeouts the ERA, whatever it is. There’s one stat that matters. As many times as we can get in that left (win) column, the better off we are. I think we’re moving in the right direction with this team. It’s not quixotic to make a playoff run next year for us. We’re just fighting and working hard and trying to get better.”
If “quixotic” jumps on you like a Sale fastball to a hitter looking for the slider, it was yet another in his attempts to expand his vocabulary with a predetermined word (this one meaning exceedingly idealistic; unrealistic and impractical) that he tries to inject into his postgame interviews.
Sales won just once in August and gave up five runs (four earned) in an Aug. 1 start against the Minnesota Twins, and just as it looked like he might start to fade, he has been as good as ever of late.
Over his last six starts, Sale has given up a combined seven earned runs. He insists, though, that his late-season push has nothing to do with a certain piece of hardware that looks so tantalizingly close to his grasp.
“I’ve thought about the ... Cy Young and all that stuff, but as soon as it comes in my mind it comes back out because I don’t play the game for that,” Sale said. “I play for everybody in here.”
To go with his 1.99 ERA, Sale also has a 12-3 record. His 24th start of the season was dominating -- he retired 17 consecutive batters at one point, and 21 of 22 after giving up a walk to Coco Crisp to start the game.
“He was great,” Ventura said. “I think we've seen him over the course of the year and the last couple years, sometimes it looks like he's maxing out when he's pitching. Today I thought he had a great rhythm, just being able to throw pitches when he wanted to, getting back into counts, he was tough. Anytime he gets like that, he has the ability to throw a game like he did today.”
Looking like he could be hitting a wall in the eighth inning as the A’s had two runners on base with two outs, Ventura came to the mound followed by a chorus of boos from what was left of the paid crowd of 12,314. The cynic would offer that Ventura was milking the moment for the cheers that were to follow when he left his pitcher in the game, but Sale admitted the dramatic pause had its purpose.
“Yeah, in those scenarios that’s when the game starts speeding up on you, and it happens to everybody,” Sale said. “It can happen real quick. For me, I’m just trying to show it down. He’s coming out there trying to give me a breather: ‘Getting past the 100-pitch mark, this is your last guy so bear down right here. I’m giving you a breather so let’s go.’ That’s what that was.”
If Sale gets the three starts this month he looks to be lined up for, it would put him opposite the Tigers once and the Royals twice, including one of those outings against Kansas City on the last day of the season. Perhaps facing contenders will help Sale in the Cy Young chase just as much as being a contender is helping Hernandez.
Knowing that he wouldn’t make his case for pitching’s highest honor, Sale was asked if it’s still nice that the prize exists as the byproduct of a great season.
“I got rewarded tonight with a win; that’s all I need. That’s it,” Sale said. “We played good baseball, (Marcus) Semien with that big homer there late, just pushing us through the finish line right there. (Jake Petricka) coming there and closing it down, that’s baseball. That’s the reward of what we work for, winning and having success.”