White Sox let young ace Chris Sale test his limits

LOS ANGELES – On a recent morning in L.A., Chris Sale had spent a precious few minutes with his young son via the Internet, which, as usual, led him to think of his own dad. He'd spoken with him, too, so it had become one of those wonderful days when Sale would be assured again of how good he has it.

Barely 23, he's not only holding down a big-league job in the Chicago White Sox's rotation, but leads American League starters in ERA, has won eight games, likely is on his way to the All-Star game and is surrounded by men he says inspire him with their conviction and work ethic.

Sale seems sturdy like that. He's young, married, with a child, and honored his father on the day he was called to the major leagues with the message, "We made it."


Like, "You and me."

Not long after he'd finished his conversation with 2-year-old Rylan, Sale said of his father, Allen, "He's been a big part of it. My dad, the way he was, if I can be half the father he was, it'll be more than enough."

At 6-foot-6, Sale would hardly be half of anything. Though, at 180 pounds, he could hide behind a fungo bat. From that light-tower frame, Sale foists upon AL hitters a fastball well into the 90s with remarkable command given the mound volatility that often comes with being tall, left-handed, fungo-bat-ish and 23.

In a half-season for the White Sox almost no one saw coming, Sale has been about the best pitcher in baseball, give or take a Matt Cain or R.A. Dickey or Jered Weaver, depending on your criteria, and has done so at one of the more hitter-friendly ballparks in the league. What makes Sale very special is the fact he is two years removed from his draft day, when he was selected 13th overall, so 12 places behind Bryce Harper, and that this is his first professional season as a starter. And word of Sale is only just beginning to spread.

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"It's nice that people are thinking that highly of me," he said. "But, at the same time, as good as whatever I've done – or as good as whatever might be – you can't get sidetracked by that stuff."

In fact, he's eight months younger than Stephen Strasburg. The two actually compare similarly this season. Strasburg has more wins and strikeouts in two more starts. Sale – in the more demanding league and cozier park – has a better ERA and WHIP in 1 2/3 fewer innings. Strasburg, of course, is coming off Tommy John surgery, has not pitched more than seven innings in a start and only about a third of the time reaches 100 pitches. The Washington Nationals generally treat him like their dad's new car, which is to say they'll keep the miles low and try not to red-line him. They'll allow him about 160 innings, according to general manager Mike Rizzo, then shut him down, regardless of the Nationals' standing and Strasburg's health and their fans' incredulity.

Maybe it would be different if Sale had a fresh scar on his pitching elbow, but the White Sox have no such plans. In what at times has felt like the Season of James Andrews, the White Sox, according to assistant general manager Rick Hahn, will not limit Sale's pitch counts or innings artificially. Instead, they'll take his temperature between starts, buy him the occasional extra day when the schedule permits, skip him if necessary, and use the All-Star break for another blow. Already, Sale has made seven starts on at least five days' rest, and five – including Wednesday's in Minnesota – on four.

"In that way," Hahn said, "we're scheduling him more like a college pitcher. Our hope is to get him through the full year."

There does seem a fine line between pushing young starters to their potential, hardening them to the rigors of six – or seven – months of regular innings, and risking their fragile and valuable arms. Thing is, it's difficult to separate the horses from the injury candidates until they become horses or injured. There are scouts and evaluators who believe big innings in young pitchers bring long-term harm, and the game in general leans that way.

At some point, however, an organization has to hand the ball to its pitcher and believe in its philosophy, its trainers, its coaches and its pitcher. And the young pitcher has to believe in who he is, and what he is becoming.

"I want him to pitch without the mindset he's going to get cut short at any point," manager Robin Ventura said. "You don't really want to put a governor on him. This is an important part of his learning as a starter. I just feel if you're going to limit him he's going to feel limited when he's on the field. I just want him to be a pitcher."

Ventura referenced Strasburg, saying, "There's been guys with limited innings who also get hurt."

When Sale's elbow was tender, the White Sox contemplated returning him to the bullpen. As a reliever over the previous two seasons, Sale carried an ERA of 2.55 over 80 appearances. But that's not what he wants to be, and told general manager Ken Williams.

"He showed Kenny a lot of fight," Hahn said. "He was willing to fight for it when he thought he might lose that spot."

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It is the role of the organization to protect its players from themselves, some of whom would pitch straight through an elbow ligament for one more win. Then again, as Ventura said, there's a young man's spirit to consider, too.

"Man, it's just something I've always done," Sale said. "Something I always did. I dreamed about doing it at this level. I really like the process of starting.

"We haven't talked about limits at all. I want to keep pitching as long as I can. It's about winning."

In a game where there are no absolutes, that's as good as any.

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