For starters: Sale talks way back into rotation
White Sox grant request to resume starting after bullpen stint
CHICAGO -- The smile on Chris Sale's face looked something like the joy usually reserved for an exceptionally cool holiday gift, or maybe even the birth of his son.
But on this occasion, it was just Sale sitting in the White Sox dugout telling the tale of how he left -- and then returned -- to the starting rotation in the matter of one week. Sale broke down each step of the process, from the initial elbow soreness to his unexpected move to closer to his conversation with general manager Ken Williams.
When the final meeting with the White Sox staff concluded early last Friday evening, the result was a Saturday night start for the 23-year-old against the Royals.
Hence, the permanent smile during his conversation with MLB.com on Sunday -- despite being on the short end of a 5-0 loss the night before.
"It was said in that meeting that I was going back to the rotation," Sale explained. "You could have punched me square in the face and I would have still been smiling."
How it all began
Starting was beyond a baseball job for Sale. It was his passion and comfort zone, more so than the thrill of closing out victories in the ninth inning.
As much as Sale wanted to be viewed just like any other White Sox starter and live up to the success of rotation 'mates Jake Peavy or John Danks, he was different. Sale never had thrown more than 136 2/3 innings at any level, so he was going to be monitored closely.
That process just wasn't expected to yield a change so early in Sale's starting career.
General soreness for Sale began a little before his fourth start, an eight-inning stint on April 25 at Oakland. After the game, in which he allowed two runs on six hits, his elbow tenderness took hold.
"Nothing crazy," Sale said. "It just took a little bit longer to loosen up."
"You see him, and I don't know if he was exactly favoring anything, but you knew it was sore," said White Sox reliever Matt Thornton. "I told him, 'Look, you have to be honest with yourself and the staff.'"
Honesty on Sale's part eventually produced a meeting with manager Robin Ventura and bench coach Mark Parent on May 4, before a series-opening contest against the Tigers at Comerica Park.
When Sale met with Ventura in his office, the last thing he expected was to be named the team's closer.
"News comes down, and it kind of threw me for a loop," said Sale. "I didn't really see it coming, but you can't complain with what they are doing.
"They truly do have my best interest in mind. At the end of the day, they were looking out for me. You have to respect that, but at the same time, I felt that I could go through this and do it. I knew that this was just a bump in the road, I guess you could call it. I could move through this and get past this."
Although Sale's tenderness was common knowledge, he still had not heard anything about a move to the bullpen.
"Then again, we were on the road and it was something where they thought they had to make a pretty quick decision," Sale said. "It was a tough pill to swallow. But at the end of the day, it all worked out and we got it all squared away."
"He just has a terminology he was using with the trainers, I think it scared the trainers," said Peavy, who, like Thornton, was a sounding board for Sale. "But it actually was great that they went through what they went through. They all know each other a little bit better and how things were talked about. And the biggest thing about this situation -- they handled it right."
Processing this "tough decision" included calls by Sale to his wife, his dad and some friends. They all said pretty much the same thing: The change wasn't ideal, but handling adversity is part of life.
"Life isn't easy. Nothing is given to you," said Sale. "You have to go get it. Having the support of my family and friends and teammates, it was really what got me through it."
Yet, Sale couldn't give up on living his dream. He wasn't being obstinate or flirting with career-threatening danger, in his mind. He simply wanted to make his point: The tenderness or stiffness he felt never was described as pain, but instead just normal, general pitching soreness.
So the next afternoon in Detroit, Sale approached pitching coach Don Cooper and requested another meeting with Ventura and White Sox head athletic trainer Herm Schneider. In that second meeting, Sale asked if he could talk directly to Williams and express his feelings and make his case.
This Sale tale has been discussed over and over during the past 10 days, but Sale always felt there were a few pieces missing from those reports.
For openers, Ventura always was completely in the loop and supportive about Sale's desire to speak with Williams. And the MRI done last Thursday on Sale's left elbow, originally announced by Cooper on a radio show, was a precautionary measure for the team to move forward with full confidence. They never expected to find anything wrong, and as Williams stated, the MRI was "pristine."
The phone conversation from Cleveland on that Monday, May 7, between Sale and Williams has been made out to be more dramatic than it was.
"I didn't walk into Kenny's office, kick down his door and tell him how it was going to go down," said Sale with a laugh. "That's not the case at all. He called me, we had our conversation and I asked if we could meet. He was more than willing to round up the guys and get everyone in a meeting and sit down and talk about this."
Williams said Sale showed enough bravado in their talk that he almost crossed the line -- which didn't bother Williams at all.
"Let's just say I told him I would really, really like to start," Sale said. "He's been honest and fair with me since the day I got here. Even before I signed, I talked to him the day of the Draft, and he was straightforward with me and very to the point.
"You are kind of walking on eggshells, but you want to get your point across. I didn't want to disrespect him. It's not going to get anybody anywhere. At the end of the day, he is who he is and he's done wonders for me so far and I didn't want to burn that bridge or cross any lines. But I definitely wanted to let him know I felt I could do this."
Apparently, Sale made his case. But he was available the next night and relieved Danks in a two-on, no-out situation in the eighth inning, with a 3-0 lead. A groundout pushed across the first run, followed by Carlos Santana's two-run single to center to tie the game for the Indians. The Sox rallied to win in 10 innings, 5-3, with Sale going one inning, allowing one unearned run on a hit and a walk, while striking out one in the blown save. It was his only relief appearance.
Four days later, following the meeting with the White Sox staff on Friday, May 11, Sale made his return to the rotation against the Royals. Nine of Sale's first 11 pitches were out of the strike zone. But he battled back and worked five innings, and now he is getting ready for Thursday afternoon's start against the Angels.
No less caution will be taken with Sale, even though all sides agreed to let him take another shot at starting. Sale understands a start could be skipped or he could be returned to the bullpen once again.
In a strange way, this week-long drama might have helped Sale understand what is required to be a starter a little more, and it also helped the White Sox better understand their driven young left-hander.
"If you are sore, you are sore," Sale said. "If you can't pitch, you can't pitch. Peavy said it the best. He goes, 'You feel like a hero until you are laying on that table.' That's never fun."
"Chris Sale is the ultimate competitor. He loves to win and wants to win," Peavy said. "I just told him you have to be honest with the training room, and be proactive. When I was 23 years old, I wish I would have taken a little better care of myself. Back then, you are invincible. I just advised him to take some time every day and put some deposits back in yourself. Even when you don't feel like you need it, it's a long season. I promise you it will pay off."