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Fatigue dominated in what may have been Chris Sale's final start of 2012.
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The White Sox entered today's game on a positive note, having yesterday picked up their first game in the standings versus the Tigers since the Sept. 17 win over Detroit in the make-up game at The Cell (the Alex Rios Double Play Breakup Slide game). However, a cursory examination of the situation showed that today's game was a near must-win, as the Sox entered one game behind Detroit in the standings with five to play. In a simultaneous Fox Saturday afternoon game, the Tigers were sending 2011 Cy Young winner Justin Verlander to the mound in Minnesota. To compound the pitching matchup challenges, in tomorrow's series finale against the Rays the White Sox are throwing rookie Jose Quintana against 19-game winner David Price (and by the way, good tickets are still available for Appreciate the Fans day).
Furthermore, the Rays starting pitcher today was Matt Moore who has struggled lately, lasting only 9 2/3rds innings over his last three starts with an ERA of 8.38. Rays manager Joe Maddon, blessed with a deep pitching staff, gave Moore six days rest before today's start. The White Sox, by contrast, sent Chris Sale to the mound on his regular schedule of four days rest, to keep him on track for a possible game 163 start. Hector Santiago's spot start against the Indians was used to give Jake Peavy an extra day's rest - and Peavy looked sharp - but staff ace Chris Sale would get no such break.
Moore not only looked well-rested, he took a perfect game into the fifth inning, retiring the first 13 batters before Alex Rios dumped a soft liner into right. Sale, by contrast, struggled from the beginning. He put stress on himself by putting the leadoff hitter on base in each inning. He struggled to find the narrowly defined strike zone of homeplate umpire Alfonso Marquez. His velocity was down, and he relied heavily upon his offspeed pitches. Sale battled through it as best he could, but what Sox fans saw today was a tired condor who could not replicate his soaring feats of earlier in the season, such as the 15 strikeout game when Sale last faced the Rays in May.
In the top of the first, the Rays' Desmond Jennings singled and immediately stole second. A surprise bunt hit by the Rays second-best slugger, Ben Zobrist, put runners on first and third with one out for the Rays best slugger, Evan Longoria. Sale got out of the first without damage by striking out Longoria and getting Jeff Keppinger to hit a "can of corn" (as called by Fox play-by-play man Matt Vasgersian) to centerfielder DeWayne Wise (Alejandro DeAza was a late scratch).
In the second Sale gave up a single and a walk to put runners on first and second with nobody out, but then struck out Sean Rodriguez, Chris Gimenez and Desmond Jennings to escape unscathed. Sale would not be so fortunate in the third. After a "dreaded leadoff walk" to B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist roped a double into the left field corner that hung up along the wall for Dayan Viciedo, giving Upton plenty of time to score the first run of the game. One batter later Jeff Keppinger hit a U.S. Cellular Field Special home run to left that landed in the small gap in between the outfield fence and the bleacher wall. 3-0 Rays after three, with Moore having gone nine-up-nine-down.
Another "dreaded leadoff walk" started Sale's fourth. Two well-placed singles through the infield would plate the Rays fourth run and leave runners on first and third with just one out. At this point it was clear to White Sox manager Robin Ventura and everyone in the crowd of 26,559 that Chris Sale didn't have it today. Sale exited to polite applause after 3 1/3 innings and 82 pitches, hopefully to rest up for one more regular season appearance if the Sox are still in the race. Sale was credited with 5 earned runs when reliever Brian Omogrosso gave up a run-scoring single to Evan Longoria, and the only thing that saved Chris Sale from giving up a sixth earned run was an on-target throw from right fielder Alex Rios that beat B.J. Upton to the plate, who was trying to score from second. 6-0 Rays after four, with Moore having gone twelve-up-twelve-down.
With Moore in full command of his pitches and Sox hitters, and Chris Sale out of the game, Robin started emptying the bullpen of his low leverage relievers and the game descended into a spring training-like battle of bench players and AAA call-ups, rather than a battle between two teams fighting for final playoff berths. The Sox finally got their first hit in the fifth - they would not get another until Alex Rios again singled in the seventh. They would not advance a runner to second base until two outs in the eighth. It almost didn't matter that the mighty condor crashed to earth today, as the only Sox hitter who could muster an extra base hit and an RBI today was Orlando Hudson, who hit a pinch hit opposite field grand slam home run in the eighth on a fly ball that just cleared the left field fence and that just stayed fair. According to the Fox announcers, it was the second grand slam of Hudson's career, and it made the final score 10-4.
Hudson's grand slam wasn't the only one that gave Sox fans the briefest glimmer of hope. In Minnesota Ryan Doumit hit one also in the bottom of the eighth, that turned a 6-0 Tiger cake walk into a possible Jose Valverde blown save and miracle Twin comeback. Valverde was wild and did indeed issue the dreaded leadoff walk, but the M&M boys (Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau) couldn't capitalize and the Tigers won. The Sox ended their afternoon two games back of the Tigers with four to play, having given back the ground in the standings they gained less than 24 hours previously.
- Knowing the challenges that lefties face against Chris Sale, Ray's manager Joe Maddon stacked the starting lineup with eight righties and a switch hitter, Ben Zobrist.
- The Rays hit four home runs including two by Matt Joyce, who didn't even start the game due to Maddon stacking the lineup with righties until Sale departed.
- Sox pitchers used after Sale were Omogrosso, Deunte Heath, Dylan Axelrod, Leyson Septimo, and Jhan Marinez. Only Marinez did not give up a run or allow an inherited runner to score. Francisco Liriano was spotted warming up in the bullpen at one point.
- The Sox had just four hits, but thanks to Hudson's grand slam actually went 1-3 with RISP. More regression to the mean!