11:00 PM CDT, September 12, 2012
Chris Sale tried to be like a sponge whenever Mark Buehrle was around, soaking up pitching knowledge. It was the same way Buehrle had learned from David Wells, sitting next to him in the White Sox dugout during games in his first full season.
The lessons Sale learned helped him be an All-Star in his first season as a big league starter. Now it's time for the guy with a mustache as thin as his frame to stand tall in the biggest games of the year, just as Buehrle did in 2005 and Wells did for the Blue Jays and Yankees.
With the Sox's lead in the American League Central down to one game, Sale gets Justin Verlander on Thursday night, a rematch of a Sept. 2 loss in Detroit, then will have only three more chances to pitch himself and his teammates into October. If he is feeling the heat, he's not showing it, and that's a good thing.
"I just want to stay on pace,'' Sale said before the 8-6 loss Wednesday, relaxing in front of his locker in the U.S. Cellular Field clubhouse. "I've said it before, but you start hyping these (big games) up, they start feeling different.''
If the Sox are going to stay ahead of the Tigers, they need Sale to give them what Jim Leyland can count on from his top two starters, Verlander and Max Scherzer.
While the curveballs Gavin Floyd used to pile up seven strikeouts in 4 2/3 innings were a hugely welcome sight, the Sox have neither the depth nor the one-two punch to match Detroit.
Scherzer has been a revelation for the Tigers, outpitching Verlander since the reigning MVP and Cy Young winner started the All-Star Game for the American League. Scherzer worked six textbook innings Wednesday, giving him a 10-1 record, 2.53 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 92 1/3 innings over his last 14 starts. His season ERA has shrunk from 5.12 to 3.77 as he has crept into Cy Young conversations.
That's plenty impressive, but it takes on otherworldly qualities considering he has emerged as a Verlanderesque force while simultaneously grieving the June suicide of his younger brother, Alex. He got the news before heading to Comerica Park for a game against the Cardinals, went home for two days with his family and rejoined the Tigers in Pittsburgh.
Scherzer lost to the Pirates in the first start after his brother's death but won at Tampa Bay five days later, building the incredible momentum he carried into two September starts against the Sox.
"When you have something like that happen to you, you appreciate the good in life," Scherzer told the Detroit News last week. "Putting a smile on and playing baseball does that for me and for my family."
When Floyd came off the disabled list to match Scherzer zero for zero in the early innings Wednesday, it suggested 16 days between starts (and only 4 1/3 innings in 27 days) may have put him in position to finish the season strong. Sale and Jake Peavy will appreciate all the help they can get.
This is uncharted territory for Sale, unless you consider the teams he pitched against for Florida Gulf Coast — schools such as Stetson, Mercer, Jacksonville and North Florida — to be the equivalent of the Tigers, Royals, Indians and Rays. But he's as prepared as he'll ever be, and as Sox pitching coach Don Cooper says, "Extraordinary times call for people to do extraordinary things.''
Sale beat the Royals in his last start after back-to-back losses to the Tigers and Orioles. Most remember his game against Verlander as him being outclassed, but it easily could have been different.
The Sox led 1-0 until a Brennan Boesch homer tied it in the fifth, and Delmon Young's three-run homer in the sixth came on a 1-2 slider at the hem of his jumbo-sized pants. Not many hitters could have golfed it over the fence in the left-field corner.
"With one or two pitches different, maybe we win that game,'' Sale said. "But I can't sit here and dwell on the past. That doesn't matter for us. I have to focus on what's ahead of us.''
Big finish? Big disappointment?
Sale and his teammates have done themselves proud to make the final act of the season matter so much. Now they have to do even better.
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