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Well-rested Sale hits ground running, heater in tow

CHICAGO -- Maybe Chris Sale was simply fresh. He was, after all, officially working on 199 days' rest.

This includes an extra 10 days Sale picked up when White Sox manager Robin Ventura decided not to start him against the Royals on the last day of 2014, and when he opened this season on the disabled list after spending the first part of Spring Training in a walking boot. Hey, whatever it takes.

We wouldn't bring any of this up, but, man, Sale was the strongest skinny dude you've just about ever seen in Sunday's 6-2 win over the Twins, to the delight of the 23,057 at U.S. Cellular Field, if not the Twins. It's possible we may know where some of Masahiro Tanaka's missing velocity went. Sale, it seems, grabbed a little extra for himself.

Like he needed it, right?

Sale has been one of the American League's nastiest starters since joining the White Sox rotation at the start of 2012. But the guy who has been called the South Side Scarecrow was breathing fire in his injury-delayed first start of '15.

Sale has added some velocity since last on public display in September, throwing harder than in all but a few starts since he was working out of Ozzie Guillen's bullpen. His first pitch was a 96-mph fastball for a strike to Danny Santana. Sale's last pitch was a 98-mph fastball for a strike, putting away Eduardo Escobar.

In between those bookends, Sale filled up the strike zone with fastballs, changeups and the occasional slider, as he usually does. The end result was a six-inning effort in which Minnesota got to him for one run and five hits while he struck out eight. Sale threw 72 strikes and only 26 balls.

"I stayed loose,'' said Sale, master of the understatement.

If it hadn't been a good enough afternoon for Sale, Ventura dropped a Sandy Koufax reference on him after the game.

Ventura was asked about Sale throwing 98-mph heaters to the next two men after Santana had shot a 96-mph fastball into the right-field corner for a run-scoring double in the third inning. That had put the potential tying run on second base, but Sale made sure it died there, striking out Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer.

Ventura said that, yes, Sale had reached to "get a little extra'' when he was threatened. It's what the great pitchers do.

"When something like that happens, he can reach back and get a little extra,'' Ventura said. "There are some guys who feel like they take it off. I've [heard] stories about Koufax. He added on. There are very few guys who can do that -- can pitch, be a very good pitcher in the big leagues, and when they need to, add on. Most guys have to take off. [Sale] has the ability to add on velocity, which is a very good thing to have.''

It's great to have an ace like Sale. The White Sox plan to compete this season by pitching him at the top of a rotation that includes Jeff Samardzija, Jose Quintana and, in the second half of the season, if not earlier, rookie Carlos Rodon, the third overall pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft. But the Sox went into the series finale against the Twins 1-4 with a staff ERA of 6.43, the highest in the Majors.

Sale had been working in the shadows all spring after suffering an avulsion fracture in his right foot unloading his truck in Arizona. It was a scary situation for the team and its fans, but Ventura and pitching coach Don Cooper were confident that Sale would be fine.

After a couple weeks of complete rest, Sale was able to throw on a regular schedule. Ventura wound up catching him one day at the Sox complex, and he hasn't worried about the velocity and movement of his pitches since then.

"This has all been about his foot, not his arm, so we weren't worried like it was his elbow and every pitch you're on pins and needles,'' Ventura said. "This was his ankle, and you have to be careful about his ankle. You didn't want him mechanically to do anything. But everything all spring, once he started throwing, it was coming out as good as it ever has.''

According to Brooks Baseball, Sale's fastball averaged 96.2 mph against Minnesota, with a high of 98.8. His average last season was 94.9 mph, up from 94.4 in 2013 and 93.5 in '12, his first season as a starter.

Catcher Tyler Flowers kept putting down one finger, and Sale kept firing fastballs. He threw 63 of them overall, according to the Brooks Baseball site, along with 25 changeups and 10 sliders.

There have been a handful of other days like this for Sale since he moved into the rotation, including a start before the All-Star break last season. His fastball averaged 96.5 mph that day, when he held the Red Sox to one run on four hits in 7 2/3 innings, and he carried that into the All-Star Game. Sale averaged 97.4 in his one inning at Target Field.

It's going to be fun to see how good Sale can be in 2015 if he can maintain the velocity he showed against the Twins. After all, he's 45-29 with a 2.76 career ERA, and he's never started a season quite as audaciously as he did this one.

"You can always do better,'' Sale said. " It was good to get out there and pitch … I've definitely got all this behind me now.''

There's always been a lot of ah-shucks to Sale, and that's not going to change now. But he did allow that he had felt very good before hurting himself in his Arizona driveway in late February, and that he had worked very hard while he was hurt to maintain the conditioning level he had established in the offseason.

"Throughout this offseason, I worked pretty hard at getting in shape, getting stronger,'' Sale said. "When the foot happened, I wanted to just make sure my arm stayed strong. Nothing happened with my foot, [the] push-off leg. I got to kind of strengthen that too.''

Sale said he worked over the winter to strengthen his lower body, doing "a lot of agility stuff, ladder drills, box jumps, single-leg squats, jump rope, stuff that was little bit different [than I'd done in the past].''

No doubt that has much to do with Sale showing the first time out on 199 days' rest.

Sale sees nothing mystical or mysterious about what he's doing. And you're wasting your time if you want to ask him how great he could become.

"I'm just a pitcher,'' he said. "You guys have all these questions for me where I have to read the future and have all the answers. I'm just a baseball player. I just want to go out there and play baseball, do the best I can. It's all I've ever done; it's all I'm ever going to do. All the extra stuff, anything that comes with it, it's cool, it's fine, but I'm going to stick to being a baseball player.''

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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