White Sox set Chris Sale free as Nats shut down Stephen Strasburg

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

The anti-Strasburg pitched again Monday night. He threw seven innings and 118 pitches. His fastball topped out at 95.3 mph. His arm did not fall off, spontaneously combust, snap, crackle or pop.

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Chris Sale is 17-7 for the White Sox this season with a 2.86 ERA, fifth among AL starters. (AP)

Chris Sale survived the rigors of another start, his 28th, and of his 188th inning, and of the most pitches he has thrown in any game in his young career, and he left it with the same feeling that pervades all his starts these days: thankfulness.

"I'm a fortunate one," he said last week, and he meant it, because he hears stories from his teammate Addison Reed, an old college buddy of Stephen Strasburg. And those stories make him cringe.

They're pretty much what you'd expect: How Strasburg, the Washington Nationals phenom and heir to the best-pitcher-in-baseball title, cannot stand the team mothballing his right arm for the remainder of the season as the club tries to win a championship. The idea that Sale wouldn't have pitched Monday's must-win game against Cleveland – that he wouldn't have been the one to help snap the White Sox's five-game losing streak in a 5-4 come-from-behind victory – is inconceivable, bordering on criminal to someone whose arm feels right and cares not about the future when the present means so much.

"It'd be tough," Sale said. "Especially knowing I want to be out there. You always want to do your job. And I feel bad for other guys because in this game there are things out of your control."

How the White Sox have controlled Sale is in stark contrast to the Nationals shutting down Strasburg earlier in the month, at 159 1/3 innings, in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery. While Sale has not undergone major arm surgery, his transition from relief pitcher to starter makes him ripe for an innings limit – like the Chicago Cubs placed on reliever-turned-starter Jeff Samardzija, who threw 174 2/3 this year.

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The White Sox don't buy it. Trainers throughout the industry consider them one of the best teams at keeping arms healthy; they're among the leaders in fewest disabled-list days from pitchers over the last half-decade. And when it came to Sale, they wanted to see how he was pitching and where the team was before making any sort of determination, a stark contrast to the Nationals' year-in-the-making shutdown of Strasburg.

"Why paint yourself in a corner if you've got no scientific stuff and nobody's got answers? Nobody does," White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. "We're going to take it upon ourselves to watch it on a daily basis. And we're going to make sure he stays healthy. That's the first goal for our pitchers."

Cooper did not consult doctors. He did not commission studies on pitchers like Sale. He did not provide a binder worth of evidence supporting the White Sox's decision to pitch Sale. Cooper, manager Robin Ventura and general manager Kenny Williams collaborated on what seemed like common sense to them: If they were going to make Sale a starter, they wanted to make him a starter who can pitch an entire season.

"We wanted him to get the full experience, get it out of the way," Cooper said. "Go start to finish. Pitch nine innings. All of those things. It's not novel. We knew it was going to be a challenge with his first year starting. I don't care who you are. I don't care how talented you are. It's tough. But I knew what we had. A quality guy."

The plan was simple: Listen to Sale's arm. If it's tired, give him a day or two off from throwing. Skip a bullpen. Limit him playing catch on the field. Sometimes don't even allow him to pick up a ball. And find him extra days of rest wherever possible.

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Sale has thrown 188 2/3 innings this season. Stephen Strasburg threw 159 1/3. (Getty Images)

Nearly half of Sale's starts came with five days, one beyond the normal for a five-man rotation. Four times the White Sox allowed him six or more days. When Sale's elbow flared up in early May, the team panicked and returned him to the bullpen. Sale lobbied Williams to reverse his decision. An MRI showed a clean elbow, and back he went into the rotation, where he has made the same number of starts as Strasburg but thrown 2,938 pitches to Strasburg's 2,607.

Sale rewarded the White Sox with a season certain to get Cy Young votes. Sale's 2.86 ERA is fifth among AL starters, behind David Price, Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez, the sort of company any pitcher would love to keep. His 17-7 record and 185 strikeouts highlight the dynamism of stuff that he flings from a low three-quarters angle. At 6-foot-6, 180 pounds, Sale is the closest thing anyone has seen to Randy Johnson since the Big Unit's debut, and his fastball-slider combination does his predecessor justice.

It's no wonder, then, he's still pitching. With their Central lead eroding, with their offense sputtering, the White Sox need lockdown performances – not costs be damned necessarily, but with faith in Sale's arm that no arm is due.

"We're aware he's young," Ventura said. "He's making the transition from the bullpen. But I don't want to do anything that I feel would jeopardize his career."

The balance is tough. Ventura played through the advent of the pitch-count age, during which teams began monitoring pitchers with eagle eyes. Neither Strasburg nor Sale ever threw an absurd amount of pitches in one game, the sort of traumatic event on an arm that researchers believe is far likelier to injure it than regular throwing. The Strasburg shutdown threw the baseball establishment for a loop because Strasburg was healthy and was throwing well, and it felt like the machines had taken over.

"I don't care what they did," Cooper said.

[Also: Adam Dunn homers twice to led White Sox past Indians]

And the White Sox acted like that. Cooper compared Sale to a gas tank, "and there were points I've run out," Sale admitted. At those points, both said, he replenished himself with additional rest. His stuff hasn't lagged much. While Sale's average fastball Monday of 91.9 mph was among his lowest this year, he still found 95 mph when he needed it. Sale said he's simply pitching a little differently right now, conserving his best stuff at the end of a long season, when plenty of pitchers' velocities dip.

"The organization deserves a hand for how they've handled him," White Sox starter Jake Peavy said. "They've done it with care. They've given him extra rest when he looks worn down. Chris Sale is 23 years old. I don't get what other teams are doing. If you're conditioned enough to do it, we got in the big leagues and threw 200 innings. It's just what you did.

"I understand you've got to protect your guys, but I think your condition, your work ethic will stand up. You're going to have arm issues whether you throw 100 innings or 200. If your arm breaks down, it was going to break down."

When he was 22, Peavy threw 194 2/3 innings. Sale is at 188 2/3, up from 71 last year, and if the White Sox need a Game 163, he's on tap to pitch and could pass 200 innings. It could be Game 1 of the division series, too, if the White Sox hold on to their one-game lead over Detroit. And as Strasburg watches his teammates take the ball in every one of their October games, Sale would have the responsibility of locking down the Rangers or Yankees or Orioles or A's or Angels.

As long as his arm lasts one more start at least.

"So far, so good," Sale said, and he knocked on his wooden locker. What he understands about the arm is simple: He understands nothing. Like Cooper said, people try to know, but they can't for certain. And so as Stephen Strasburg plays the part of teenager confined to the house for fear of what the big, bad world might do, the White Sox let their kid roam free, acknowledging the big, bad world might eat his arm alive. He might blow out, and they might regret the hell out of it, and second-guessers might play na-na-na-boo-boo. But there's a good chance at another outcome.

The White Sox might win with Chris Sale on the mound. And that's a risk they're more than willing to take.

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