CHICAGO -- In Tuesday's 6-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians, any suggestion that Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale was going to raise his record to 10-0 on the season was quickly dispelled by what might rank as the most arduous inning of his career and perhaps one of the worst. Sale did not get out of the fourth inning, and he recorded just 10 outs while surrendering six runs and 11 baserunners.
Sale had cruised through the Indians’ batting order the first time, as he struck out five batters while throwing noticeably harder, including 11 fastballs clocked at 95 mph or faster. You could already anticipate how Sale’s perfect 10 to open the season was going to spring from his fingertips, conjured up by the magic his arm has spoiled the White Sox with for six seasons.
Except that wasn’t what happened. In the third inning -- after Sale used just five pitches to get his first two outs -- Indians super-utilityman Jose Ramirez delivered the at-bat that started the busting of Sale's streak. It took Ramirez 10 pitches and laying off Sale’s slider for three balls to get aboard with a walk.
The next four Indians all reached base, with Mike Napoli’s triple -- a fly ball lined to left that dropped between center fielder Austin Jackson and left fielder Melky Cabrera -- responsible for breaking the frame wide open and cashing in on the opportunity Ramirez created. If Sale’s fastball had been sizzling earlier, it lost much of its zip in the third inning.
“They had some good at-bats against him. They got to a guy who’s been rolling along,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura observed before noting more velocity from Sale delivered less in terms of results. “He was up there, velocity-wise. This was uncharacteristic for him. It just seemed like everything was a little harder than normal. The changeup was probably a little harder than it has been in the past. The separation wasn’t as good tonight.”
The 43 pitches Sale threw in the third inning represented a devastating in-game event, maybe more so than the three runs he allowed. Not only was that a single-inning career high for Sale, but it also meant an early night for the Sox ace, no matter what happened. Also, it meant the White Sox bullpen would have to pitch plenty the night after playing a doubleheader.
The only other time Sale has thrown 40 pitches in an inning was May 12, 2012, when the Royals worked him for 42 in the first. He stayed in that game and gave the White Sox four more scoreless frames to keep the game in reach and the bullpen's workload down. That’s what an ace is supposed to do, even in the worst circumstances.
“This was definitely an off-night for him,” Ventura said. “The best part of it is that it’s not anything physical, as far as he was hurting or anything. He had velocity. He probably had too much of it on his secondary pitches.”
That is why Ventura sent Sale out to pitch the fourth inning after he threw 70 pitches in the first three frames. As Ventura noted, “He’s been able to get himself out of stuff like that.”
Maybe Sale could add another inning or two, or maybe he stays in line for the decision. But it was nothing doing because Chris Gimenez belted a 90 mph fastball into the seats to lead off the inning.
After whiffing Michael Martinez on a slider, Sale walked the next two guys on not-as-fastballs, and then Francisco Lindor hit a first-pitch fastball to add another run. Sale was finished -- maybe even overdone. But as carefully as the White Sox have managed Sale’s workload in the past, you can understand their giving in to the temptation to let him try to turn this night around and eke out an inning or two. Down 3-1 after three innings, the game was in reach. Down 6-1 in the fourth -- not so much.
Given how gifted he is, it’s easy to understand why Sale was given this much rope. He came into the game having thrown 11 straight “hard” quality starts, in terms of giving up three runs or fewer (not just earned runs), and 12 straight quality starts if you use earned runs. He had thrown six straight quality starts against the Indians. He’s Chris Sale, performer of amazing deeds.
After Tuesday night, Sale still ranks among baseball’s best. One bad start doesn’t change that. But on Tuesday, he received a reminder of sorts, like the victor at a Roman triumph who, at glory’s height, got the necessary admonition: “Remember you are human.”
Even when you’re as good as Chris Sale, you end up hearing that on a big-league diamond.
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.