KANSAS CITY -- There was something different about Chris Sale during the White Sox 5-1 victory over the Royals on Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.
This noticeable switch came from Sale taking the baseball, stepping on the mound and performing in that extra gear as an ace hurler was designed. The White Sox had lost three in a row, and Sale wasn't going to let that streak get to four, hurling eight scoreless innings, and he would have come back for the ninth if not for the White Sox (3-3) pushing across four in the top of the frame.
Even though Kansas City had ace James Shields (0-1) on the mound, Sale (2-0) was on a mission. Even if his offense only scored one run.
"He knows we lost a few in a row and he's going up against Shields," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura. "We need a win and there is something different about him. You can tell."
"It's tough, but you know what you're getting when you face a team like this and a starter in James," Sale said. "You've just got to bear down and give it everything you've got. Just kind of crank it up a little bit and get it going."
Before Sale took the mound, little doubt existed in his mind that he needed to be near-perfect. That feeling comes from the lack of offense Sale has received recently when facing the Royals. So he couldn't have been surprised when he looked at the gigantic scoreboard in center in the seventh inning and saw a 0 under the runs column.
In his previous 42 innings on the mound against the Royals, covering parts of six starts total into the seventh inning on Sunday, the White Sox had given him one total run of support courtesy of a Tyler Flowers homer on Opening Day in 2013. They matched that total against Shields.
Conor Gillaspie, who doubled twice, ripped his second extra-base hit down the right-field line with one out in the seventh and moved to third on Avisail Garcia's topper back to the mound. Alexei Ramirez followed with a ground ball that shortstop Alcides Escobar only was able to knock down to bring home the run.
Ramirez's two hits on Sunday give the notoriously slow April starter 10 in his first 22 at-bats.
"Everybody contributed a little bit," Ramirez said through translator and White Sox manager of cultural development Lino Diaz. "But the big thing is that we won."
"For him it's getting pitches in the strike zone," Ventura said of his shortstop. "It's always been about pitch selection and being able to get somebody in the zone. If you make yourself swing at strikes, you have a better chance, and he's been doing that."
Of course, the Royals probably weren't stunned to see their run total at zero going against one of the game's top pitchers. The White Sox left-hander allowed four hits over 111 pitches, with two of those hits coming in the third when the Royals had their only runner reach third prior to scoring in the ninth.
Six strikeouts and one walk also were part of Sale's final line, along with one unofficial message pitch coming in the sixth. Jose Abreu, the White Sox marquee offensive force, was hit by a Shields pitch in the top of the frame, coming two innings after he inadvertently stepped on first baseman Eric Hosmer's foot trying to beat out a grounder to Escobar.
On a 2-0 pitch to Omar Infante in the bottom of the frame, after coming inside on the first two offerings, Sale came well inside to earn warnings for both benches from home-plate umpire Greg Gibson.
"Leaking front side. Flying open," Sale said. "Ball cut a little bit, so [stuff] happens."
Shields understood Sale was trying to protect his teammate, but said postgame there was no intent when he hit Abreu.
"I'm not trying to hit Abreu there. In a 0-0 ballgame, I'm not trying to put a runner on base," said Shields, who gave up one run on five hits while fanning six over seven innings and 102 pitches. "When he stepped on Hoz, I went over to him and said everything's OK. When I hit him, after that, I went over to be sure everything was OK. There was definitely no intent right there."
Replay challenge No. 1 of the season came for the White Sox in that same sixth inning on Hosmer's fielder's choice grounder back to the mound. The ruling was that Hosmer beat the relay to first, and the umpires ruled that the play would stand as called after a review.
At those 111 pitches after eight, Sale was ready to protect that one-run lead in the ninth. Ventura was ready to have him protect that lead. But the White Sox four-run rally, capped by Flowers' two-run single, sent closer Matt Lindstrom to the mound.
Sale's work was done at that point. But don't try to tell the humble All-Star his presence is any more important than any other White Sox player or that he sits at the center of this reshaping process. He's just one of the guys, even when his talent and competitive fire says he's clearly not.
"I pitch once every fifth day like all the other starters and I take the first bus just like everyone else," Sale said. "I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm more or less important than the next guy. It's a team effort. I'm lucky to be surrounded by guys that I have."