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 2 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.
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.