When you’re writing about an MLB season, the daily chug of regular games, new lineups, new stories can wear on you after a while. The end of a year, while bittersweet, can feel like a relief, because work will move at your own pace for a while. I’m not yet ready for that to change.
However, what’s immediately recognizable and painfully absent is the daily drama and entertainment of a game. Something to get lost and invested in for a short period of time every day. Endless bowl games can’t beat White Sox-Rays, even if they’re playing in that re-purposed Home Depot of a stadium.
Which is exactly what they were doing on Memorial Day, May 28th, 2012. One thing days off of work usually serve to do is remind you how awful weekday television programming is, but there was a baseball game dropped in at 2pm.
A baseball game which happened to house a matchup between Chris Sale and Matt Moore, which was more than enough motivation to roll groggily out of bed and out from under the haze of a weekend of birthday celebrations for.
I’ll often seen a pitcher at his best, and identify that image as what it means for them to just be pitching well, even if they’re capable of being effective at lower levels of performance.
But after the first two batters that Memorial Day, Chris Sale was clearly demonstrating a form far more brutal than anything that had ever been seen from him before. The off-center camera angle was exaggerating the angle from which his side-arm delivery was coming from, making his fastballs look like bullets that managed to skirt past any obligation to enter the hitting zone. The slider looked the same except that it wound up in an unreachable location thanks to some last-second escape route. The sense of inevitability to those at-bats is just not something typically seen in major league baseball.
Obviously, Chris Sale wasn’t going to strike out everybody in the game, but as the absurd splits started piling up–5 K’s through the 2nd, 9 K’s through the 4th, 14 K’s through the 6th–it became clear that a strikeout was the mostly likely outcome of any given plate appearance. That brought forth a little jolt of excitement to think “Hey, he could set some kind of record pitching like this.”
The Rays scored off of Sale in the 4th. And not in a way where he was humbled, or really slowed down, but that they got lucky in two separate instances, and managed to clump them together. Sale’s infuriated reaction to Jose Lobaton‘s RBI single to left could have been directed at nothing more than his team falling behind, but it also addressed the absurdity that he would be scored upon on this day, where dominance flowed so easily from his fingers
When Adam Dunn made contact with a titanic two-run clout that hit against the back wall of Tropicana Field, Hawk cried “There it is!” as if some accounting error had been instantly corrected. Pitchers wins are already a fickle, barren field of injustice, but Sale’s pyrotechnics were too eye-popping to be shackled with something as mundane as concerns about the results of the game, and Dunn liberated them, so the focus could return to skill of Sale’s performance.
As is natural when one starts racking up the pitch counts associated with striking everyone out, Sale started noticeably tiring out in the 7th inning. The way in which he tired out makes it hard to understand how anyone could see Sale’s second-half-of-the-season swoon where his velocity dipped as him “learning how to pitch”, or some kind of process of tinkering, or even regression to the mean*. Sale at his peak performance is such a distinctive entity, that there’s no hiding when he’s not.
With Rays hitters suddenly displaying the ability to make contact, and a runner on 3rd thanks to A.J. Pierzynski‘s now-departed catcher defense, there was a sudden drama to his 2-out showdown with Jose Molina, where previously there had simply been the joy of marveling at a highly-effective buzzsaw. When Sale reached back to find 96 mph to end the frame, he unleashed his now familiar celebration mix of fiery gestures crossed with awkward restraint; a fitting end to an inning that saw him humanized, but still triumphant.
There was the episode of Sale being brought out for the 8th for a single batter, and a rare event-free Addison Reed save. But nothing about the process of concluding and registering the game as another entry on a 162-item ledger stood out. Rather it was the frenzied buildup, the unstable moment of wondering “what the hell is happening here?” that put this game apart for me.
Baseball is a wave of predictable occurrences, and the White Sox are particularly reliable at being half-decent, so any time Chris Sale wants to use his superstar abilities to blast that away, he’s more than welcome.
*I realize that Sale’s inability to stay at top velocity is taken into consideration when determining his true talent level, I am refuting the notion that there was nothing different about his process in the 2nd half.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan