CHICAGO -- Chris Sale was the definition of an ace Sunday … well, with everything except for that part where he is pitching for a legitimate contender during the stretch drive.
The Chicago White Sox are not officially eliminated from playoff contention, but they will need to do far more than rely on Sale every fifth day.
Sale was more than willing to be the light post for his teammates to lean on Sunday against the cross-town Chicago Cubs. He was the horse with a 24-man saddle on his back.
Need a victory to stop an opponent's sweep? Sale had that covered. Need some strikeouts to give a respite to a defense that struggled one day earlier? How about 15 K's over seven spectacular innings.
And it wasn’t just a nice 3-1 victory on a day that allowed the fan base to salvage some pride and give them some arguing points with their family members and neighbors to the north.
“He was ready to go; he was fantastic today,” manager Robin Ventura said. “I don't know, not too many times he's been better than that. He's had some that were close to it, but right from the start of the game, when he strikes out the side in the first inning, you're feeling pretty good about it. He was darn near unhittable for the time he was in there.”
Sale not only struck out the side in the first inning on 14 pitches, he struck out the side in the fourth and seventh innings, as well. His 15 strikeouts tied a career high and turned a seemingly ordinary summer afternoon into a historic one.
Sale now has three consecutive seasons with 200 or more strikeouts, joining Ed Walsh as the only White Sox pitchers to accomplish that feat. It was his franchise-record 29th game with double digits in strikeouts and 11 this season alone, also a franchise record.
When he reached 12 strikeouts, it marked the 17th time in his career he did that, also a franchise record.
And when Nate Jones came on to strike out the side in the eighth inning, the White Sox set a franchise record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game with 18.
At first Sale called it the best game he ever pitched before retracting that statement with an, "Eh, I don’t know.”
“For me, just go into it as another game and try to give your team a chance to win,” he said. “It’s a hot day and try to make it quick. You don’t want to leave the guys out there too long. Work quick and try to get outs.”
For all Sale has done, though, he has been unable to help his team into October. That’s not all on him, of course, but rather on White Sox clubs over his six seasons that have been overwhelmed in the division.
For a time Sunday, though, it did feel like postseason baseball, or at least late September baseball with plenty on the line.
When the Cubs loaded the bases in the sixth inning on a single, a walk and a hit batter, both White Sox and Cubs fans were on their feet in anticipation of something positive. The White Sox fans won out when Sale struck out Jorge Soler on a changeup that might have been off the edge of the plate.
Even the Cubs’ side would appreciate that moment.
“That moment where Soler struck out really, really had a playoff moment attached to it in a visceral sense,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “It was just all about the crowd, the moment, the bases loaded, everybody's going nuts ... it was outstanding.
“We didn't get the knock we were looking for, but all those moments are going to contribute to our guys doing really well when it gets into September and getting eventually into October, so I was pleased with all that.”
Imagine that. Sale was so good Sunday, he not only helped the White Sox to a victory, he provided a teaching moment for the young Cubs as they try to wrap up a playoff berth.
There was no denying that sixth-inning moment was one that will be added to the legend of the Crosstown Cup, but it happened organically. Sale tried his best to not create it artificially before the game began.
“When you put pressure on yourself, sometimes you collapse,” Sale said. "You don’t want to do that. I try to face every game with the same mindset. Obviously when there’s a sold-out crowd and given the team, who it is, you are going to be amped up when you get out there. But going into it, I try not to do that.”
Sale was so good, he didn’t give up his first hit until the sixth inning. It did mean, though, the White Sox weren’t put in an awkward situation by having to extend Sale in a quest for a no-hitter when his pitch count was rising rapidly.
High strikeout totals might reduce an opponent's chance at success, but they can drive pitch counts sky-high. Sale’s outing Sunday brought two questions into focus: Can he ever match the major league record of 20 strikeouts in a game, and can he ever throw a no-hitter?
As far as a 20-strikeout game goes: “Twenty? In a game? That would be tough,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “We’ll have to strike them out faster, I know that.”
And how about that no-hitter? “There are a lot of pitchers out there with no-hitters and a lot better than I am, too, so no,” Sale said. “When you’re out there, you take it for what it is. I know; I believe everyone knows when it’s up there. You can’t help but think about it. But with how hard this game is, I’m going to try but I’m not going to guarantee anything right now.”
Until Sale makes the playoffs, he has games like Sunday to give him a taste of what playoff baseball will be like. There were moments where it was close, but nothing really compares to October.
“I think they’re always fun; I always enjoy playing the Cubs,” Sale said. “The atmosphere alone, this was probably the best atmosphere I’ve ever pitched in, honestly. It’s always fun. Cross-town rival, you’re in the same city, different leagues and stuff, but I think it’s still fun, no matter when it is, where it is or how the teams are doing. It’s always enjoyable for me, anyway.”