White Sox ace Sale unfazed by frigid conditions
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Come May 12, when they get a day off after 28 games in 29 days with six flights, the White Sox will be glad they played Saturday.
Likewise Aug. 8, after 23 games in 24 days with five flights.
MLB builds just 20 off days into a 182-day season, including four for the All-Star break. So baseball is played in conditions like those Saturday to avoid makeup games and/or rotation-ravaging doubleheaders during the dog-days grind of summer, when a little rest is most welcome.
But Saturday was better-suited for the Iditarod.
Patches of snow dotted the outfield at U.S. Cellular Field when the Sox and Cleveland Indians arrived for work. A mountain of salt was spread over ice-coated walkways outside the ballpark, and the upper deck was closed because of icy conditions on access ramps. Despite a deceptively sunny sky, the temperature never threatened 40 degrees, and the 20,192 hardy souls in attendance were offered gift certificates to a future game as a show of appreciation.
And much to the consternation of the Indians, Chris Sale was pitching.
“He’s a handful anytime,” Indians manager Terry Francona said. “You might prefer to face him when it’s nice and warm, but he might feel better, too.”
Sale felt well enough to collect his second win in two starts as the Sox (4-2) used a five-run seventh inning to clobber reliever Bryan Shaw and hang a 7-3 defeat on the Indians. Melky Cabrera rifled an RBI single into right field on the ninth pitch of a tough at-bat to break a 3-3 tie, and Avisail Garcia sent the frozen crowd homeward with a three-run bomb that settled things.
Yes, it’s absurdly early in the season, but the Sox were happy to see Sale embody the staff-ace stature his last four All-Star seasons have conferred on him. The Oakland Coliseum has been a baseball crime scene to them for much of its existence, but three wins in four season-opening games out there generated some positive vibes for the sold-out home opener Friday. They quickly dissipated during a 7-1 loss that featured sloppy reminders of the last three years.
None of that nonsense happened to Sale. He was as good as he needed to be for seven innings, limiting the damage to Mike Napoli’s two-run homer in the sixth inning and a solo shot by Yan Gomes in the seventh.
“Those things are going to happen — got to roll with them,” Sale said. “I don’t think it was fun for anybody, but a day like today is definitely harder on the hitters than the pitchers. That five-run inning showed the attitude of this team. We’re going to grind until the final out.”
Napoli guessed right on a changeup — ‘‘Big, strong dude,” Sale acknowledged — and Gomes hit a fastball he left over the plate. Otherwise, Sale was in total control, catcher Alex Avila said.
“He wasn’t really on it in the first two innings, but he battled through it,” Avila said. “He can be effectively wild with the stuff he has, but when he’s commanding everything and throwing strikes like he was today, he’s going to be very tough.”
Avila caught Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer with the Detroit Tigers. He sees Sale approaching that class.
“He’s a great pitcher, one of the best I’ve caught, and he’s going to get better as he learns himself,” Avila said. “He’s an emotional guy, and he’s got to keep his emotions in check and channel them to the positive side.”
Winning series is the key to contention, and the Sox can make it 2-for-2 in 2016 by winning the finale Sunday against the Indians before hitting the road for another six games. It would be nice to leave a reminder that this is a two-team town.
“We’re a totally different team this year,” Sale said. “Whatever it takes, we’ve got it.”