As Sale returns, temptation taunts Sox

CHICAGO -- It was the rarest of baseball moments Thursday at U.S. Cellular Field when both sides actually let out a sigh of relief when a perfect-game bid was ended.

The New York Yankees obviously didn't want to be on the wrong side of history, while the White Sox were in the delicate situation of choosing prudence over potential glory since starter Chris Sale was fresh off the disabled list and under a strict pitch count.

So when Sale retired the first 17 Yankees hitters in dominating fashion, White Sox manager Robin Ventura found himself in the most awkward of positions, calling the bullpen to get a reliever warm. Enter Yankees No. 9 hitter Zoilo Almonte, who saved the day for everybody with a sharp single to center field.

"We knew before the game and he knew," Ventura said about limiting Sale’s pitches in his first start after five weeks on the disabled list because of a sore left arm. "There might have been something that was free and easy for him because he knew [it would be a short night], but I was relieved there was a hit."

With that, Ventura's eyes darted away.

"I don't know if that sounds right," he said.

Only when considering that Sale is the centerpiece of a roster rebuild and has experienced arm soreness in each of the three seasons that he has been a starter, does it make perfect sense.

The left-hander's reality right now is that he will be handled with the utmost care moving forward. Think of the most expensive piece of crystal in the shop and all the protective material it would take to ship it across the country.

If the White Sox could send Sale to the mound in five days covered in bubble wrap, Styrofoam peanuts and gobs of newspaper, they would.

Sale might be the most competitive player on the White Sox's roster, but even he understands the value of taking it slow. He gave up one hit with 10 strikeouts over six innings on 86 pitches and wasn't kicking and screaming when he was removed from his team's eventual 3-2 victory.

"Yeah, I mean, you obviously want to go back out there, especially since I'm usually not used to coming out after [86] pitches," Sale said. "I definitely wanted to get back out there, but I understand the circumstances and what we're working towards. Did I like it? No. But did I respect it? Absolutely. You've got to follow the plan and stay the course and see this thing through."

Ventura said Sale's pitch count will increase slightly in his next start, which is expected to come Tuesday at home against the Cleveland Indians. Five days after that, Sale's restrictions figure to be reduced even more.

But it doesn't seem likely he would be allowed to reach the 127-pitch mark again this season as he did on May 17 against the Boston Red Sox. Despite some command issues, Sale dominated that day, too, giving up only one hit over seven innings with another 10 strikeouts. But he didn't pitch again until Thursday.

Yet asked if the 127-pitch mark is now off-limits, Ventura refused to say it was.

"I think there will be a time when he does that again," Ventura said.

Maybe that was Ventura's way of never saying never. Surely he knows the backlash that would follow if he let Sale drift into the stratosphere again.

But Ventura is also a players' manager, who doesn't like anybody dictating -- or even knowing -- his business. Asked what Sale's pitch count was Thursday, Ventura refused to come clean.

"I'm not going to tell you," he said.

Does he hope Sale isn't working on another perfect game next week?

"I hope he does," Ventura said. "I hope he makes me make a decision."

Perhaps the manager and the pitcher can laugh about it again, the way they did in the dugout during Thursday's game.

"I don't think I've ever been more excited to give up a hit in my life," Sale said. "I knew I was done after that sixth, and Robin said the same thing. He said, 'You picked a bad night to do something like that.' It was all in fun, just joking around, but it was good to be back out there. I enjoyed it."

It was yet another reason to let out a sigh of relief.