3:36 PM CST, February 16, 2013
You almost never can boil a baseball season down to one game, let alone one pitch. But when I break down what happened to the White Sox down the stretch in 2012, when a potentially great season for rookie manager Robin Ventura turned into a learning exercise, I find a clear turning point.
It came on Sept. 2 at Comerica Park. A 1-2 slider from Chris Sale came in to Delmon Young at ankle height on the inside part of the right-handed hitter's batter's box and was golfed over the left-field wall, not far from the foul pole.
It was the fourth consecutive slider Sale had thrown Young, who is known as a fastball hitter, and it spoiled what had been a great battle between the young White Sox lefty and the most consistently dominating pitcher in the majors, Justin Verlander.
"I'd thrown him quite a few sliders before but he was swinging the bat pretty good,'' Sale said. "He had been swinging at that pitch (out of the strike zone). I guessed wrong, he guessed right. He got the upper hand on that one, for now.''
Young's two-run homer broke a 1-1 tie in a game Verlander would win 4-2, giving the Tigers a tie for first place in the American League Central. There were still 30 games left in the season, and the Tigers wouldn't charge to their title until the last two weeks, but the Sale-Verlander matchup wasn't just another game.
Until that drive by Young, that game had been an edge-of-the-seat experience for hardcore fans of the White Sox and Tigers — and me too. It was high drama we had seen coming for a couple of weeks since Jim Leyland shuffled his rotation to move Verlander in front of Anibal Sanchez.
Leyland knew the game carried a lot of weight, and he was right. It finished a three-game sweep for the Tigers, who would have trailed the White Sox by six games if Ventura's team had won all three. That series sent a message to both teams that the one built to go the distance was the one Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Verlander, Max Scherzer, Sanchez and Doug Fister led.
Sale was in the Cy Young conversation when he faced Verlander, and he would finish his first season as a starter 17-8 with a 3.05 earned-run average. He struck out 192 in his 192 innings and had a 1.14 WHIP, which ranked fifth in the AL behind Jered Weaver, Verlander, Jake Peavy and Cy Young winner David Price.
His biggest loss hasn't exactly haunted Sale.
"I hadn't thought about that game until right now,'' he said last week in Glendale, Ariz. "That game is not going to help me this year. It won't prepare me for next bullpen, and that's all I'm thinking about. … I'd like that pitch back, like to do the whole thing over but there's nothing you can do about it.''
Sale, still a month from his 24th birthday, is happy to be back on the field again. He enjoyed his time at home in Florida, hanging with his wife, Brianne, and their young son, Rylan. He traveled to Puerto Rico for Alex Rios' wedding and California for Edwin Jackson's, and he acquired a new skill.
"I learned to grill,'' he said. "Had some good times out by the pool, grilling with my family. John Danks taught me last year.''
Last spring, when he was making the conversion from the bullpen back to being a starting pitcher, Sale threw changeups all spring, even when he was just playing catch. He says there is no one point of focus this spring, saying he will work on "all of the above,'' including pickoff throws.
The White Sox believe they can compete behind their pitching staff, and those chances start with Sale and Peavy. If there is another matchup between Sale and Verlander in 2013, I would bet Sale will come away from it without regrets, not that he has spent much time thinking about the last one.
High praise: The Mets were thrilled to get catching prospect Travis d'Arnaud from the Blue Jays for R.A. Dickey, and it's easy to see why. He has everything you want in a catcher, which is why the Jays had demanded the Phillies include him in the Roy Halladay deal three years ago.
Mike Compton, who worked with d'Arnaud as the Phillies' minor-league catching coordinator, expects greatness from him.
"I started professionally in 1965 and I worked with and have seen a lot of great catchers, and the great ones just have a different gear,'' Compton told the New York Post. "Travis is one of those guys. It's like Usain Bolt; he can just run faster than other people. It's just there. I was with Johnny Bench when he was (young), and Travis, when he's off on another field and you look over — physically, he walks and looks a lot like Johnny. His shoulders hang like John's, he has big hands like John, and the mannerisms. He has a lot of tools and he is such a gifted hitter.''
Blaming Boston: Carl Crawford was one of the first position players in the Dodgers' camp. He still is trying to get over both a surgically repaired elbow and damage to his confidence suffered in 11/2 seasons with the Red Sox, when he wasn't nearly the player he was with the Rays.
He says the trade to the Dodgers last summer, when he was injured and unable to play, was a blessing.
"I knew with the struggles I was having (in Boston), it would never get better for me,'' Crawford told the Los Angeles Times. "I just didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel. It puts you in kind of a depression stage. You just don't see a way out. … I'm in a place now where I feel a lot better about myself. I just feel like the player I once was."
Crawford, 31, will play left field in an outfield that also features Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier. He will be one of the toughest players for fantasy types to project as he could hit for average, steal bases and score a bunch of runs or continue to be a $142 million bust.
He admits that he wasn't mentally tough enough to handle the heat he faced in Boston, saying he wondered if he made a bad choice taking an offer from then-general manager Theo Epstein.
"A lot of times I did,'' he said. "You hear a lot of talk about how I just wanted money. At some point, you just wondered if you made the right decision."
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