On Tuesday night, Chris Sale finally looked like lefty-terrorizing menace he was supposed to be when Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen thrust him into an indefinite, full-time relief role.
With Adrian Gonzalez at the plate and the tying run on deck, Guillen called on Sale to end the evening.
Did he ever. Even though he missed the mitt three times, Gonzalez couldn't time his stuff. Sale got ahead of Gonzalez with an inside-corner fastball for strike one, got a fastball just off the outside corner for strike two, and then froze Gonzalez with a slider on the inside corner for strike three.
Granted, A.J. Pierzynski had set up outside on the first and third pitches. That's not a terrible thing. For one, they were good misses, and plus, Sale isn't a control artist. He's supposed to be all arms, legs and heat. So far this season, he's only had the first two down.
The second fastball -- the one that generated the swing and miss -- had some sizzle to it, and Sale felt it:
Sale thought he might go slider on the second pitch to Gonzalez, but catcher A.J. Pierzynski called for the fastball and the lefty got a little bit extra on it.
"I figured he would take the first one and we would pound him with sliders after that," Sale said. "I ended up throwing a fastball second pitch. It’s one of those things where I was trying to not think too much out there and go with it."
FanGraphs says Sale lost two ticks on his heater, and hitters aren't afraid of it. During the last at-bat of Tuesday's game, that element of discomfort surfaced in the batter's box again.
According to Brooks, that second fastball to Gonzalez was clocked at 96.8 mph. That's still not his fastest fastball, but it would fit in nicely with his 2010 radar gun readings. One of the league's best hitters couldn't get around on it, and that was a welcome sight.
That one-third of an inning complemented his previous outing against Toronto nicely. Against the Blue Jays on Saturday, Sale threw sliders on 22 of his 47 pitches, and yet he only issued one walk over three innings.
So it appears that Sale's game is coming together, and that's sorely needed. Sergio Santos has exceeded all expectations and Jesse Crain has taken a leadership role in cleaning up his teammates' messes. In fact, Guillen has had to resist using Crain on a couple of occasions this season. He's appeared in a team-leading 23 games so far, and even though Crain says he's available, Guillen has had to overrule him.
The rest of the bullpen still hasn't settled itself, and that's why it's easy to want to cling to Sale's strikeout as a symbol of something bigger. The Sox need one of Sale or Matt Thornton step up, and if only one of them can make a return to elite reliever status, I'd pull for Sale. He has a much better shot at being tough on righties, too, and if he can resemble a complete reliever, it takes the pressure off both Crain and Thornton. The former doesn't always have to be used in high-leverage situations, and the latter can go back to what he's best suited for -- running through a couple lefties in an inning.
He's taken a first step in stringing together successful, important relief appearances. The next step is to keep that heat up. Sale isn't nearly polished enough to succeed throwing 94. However, if he's in the area of 97 mph, it's a whole different ballgame, and Ozzie Guillen has a whole different bullpen.