Something about Chris Sale seemed off on Tuesday night when he entered the game not as a starter, but as a two-inning closer.
To put it inelegantly, he looked pissed. off.
The SportsTime Ohio broadcasts like to show head-on close-ups of the pitcher's face. It gets pretty tiresome when looking at Josh Tomlin's flesh-colored mustache for the 12th time in two hours, but it painted a certain picture with Sale.
I reviewed the Cleveland broadcast of his first start on April 9 in order to compare his default face from the stretch to the death stare he wore on Tuesday. The screenshots above may or may not do it justice, but if you check out the gamethread, a few of us were picking up that same vibe. And that was even before the inning went to hell.
Maybe Sale tried summoning the extra intensity needed to clean up somebody else's mess. Or maybe Alexei Ramirez's bases-loading error didn't help. But between the new game face and his forgetting to cover first on a grounder that carried Paul Konerko into foul territory ... Sale had an air about him that seemed amiss. Awry. Askew.
And Daryl Van Schouwen's tweet well after the game only added to the confusion.
Sale is not entrenched in bullpen. Cooper and Sale told me today he could return to the rotation this year.— Daryl Van Schouwen (@CST_soxvan) May 9, 2012
Matt Spiegel essentially asked Van Schouwen if we were reading that right -- you know, because Robin Ventura and Don Cooper said it was a rest-of-the-season thing -- and Van Schouwen confirmed it. His subsequent story offers elaboration, but not much clarity.
As of now, Sale is being "held back,’’ Cooper said. "We’re going to continue to watch it. Who knows what we may do? Right now, we just kind of backed off him a little bit. In effect, we’ve missed a start. He’s feeling great right now.’’
Cooper compared Sale to Neftali Feliz, the Rangers’ former closer who made the transition to starter this season but was pushed back a couple of days last week.
"That was part of our plan here, and we were following that plan,’’ Cooper said. "For now, we said this is the time to back off.’’
I'd like to see a copy of this plan, please, because last week, Sale was named the closer for the rest of the 2012 season. Now they're saying they're only "backing off [starting] a little bit," which doesn't jibe with anything said earlier. And bringing up Feliz is a weird example, because the Sox chose a completely different course than the Rangers did.
If the Sox have a plan, here's what it looks like from their actions alone:
- Let Sale prepare as a starter all offseason and spring.
- Offer unwavering support regardless of spring numbers or performances.
- Bail on the plan at the first sign of irregular soreness, regardless of Sale's sentiments, and name him closer in an attempt to also solve ninth-inning issues.
- Announce a new plan to the media via multiple people throwing out contradictory statements.
- Reconsider Sale's sentiments after the news is received well by precisely nobody.
- Get waffles.
I'm not sure about Step 7, but it's the only one that makes sense. Waffles are an anytime food.
The other guess is that Ventura and Cooper had a plan ... and Kenny Williams did not particularly care for that plan. And so now the plan has changed, while they pretend it hasn't.
Either way, this whole situation is reminiscent of the first days of spring training, when Ventura originally planned for Dayan Viciedo to play right, and Alex Rios to play left. Rios wasn't comfortable with the notion, because he was a Gold Glove-caliber right fielder in Toronto. He objected, Ventura said "sustained," flipped the outfield alignment soon after, and time proved the reversal correct.
Playing Viciedo in right made some sense at first. Playing Rios in right made a lot more sense.
The Sale saga is taking a similar course of thinking and re-thinking -- except it's the regular season, and it has massive implications, both for the Sox and their most crucial young player. Sure, Ventura and Cooper can backtrack, but constant overwriting is not effective management.
Going back to Scott Merkin's original story about Sale moving out of the rotation, one line stands out in particular:
As Ventura pointed out, Sale is not hurt and still could probably go out and start. Ventura added that Sale is tough enough to handle the starting rigors, but Ventura would feel terrible if Sale got hurt in the process.
Players are going to get hurt. Hell, some of them seem to ask for it (*coughpeavycough*). But unless Ventura was more of a "ploach" than I can imagine, he probably hasn't had much say on whether a player should be pushed through pain.
I don't have kids (that I know of, ha ha ha, seriously...), but I've heard parents talk about being super-overprotective of the first child. Every crying fit -- injury, illness, or otherwise -- is a crisis. When the second kid comes, they realize that they can't shield a baby from every ailment no matter how hard they try, so they know how to cope with the guilt. And when you hear the sixth or 10th child talk about their upbringing, it sounds like they raised themselves.
These Sox are Ventura's first baby, and Sale is the baby-est of the bunch. Given the way Ventura and Cooper ramped up the alarm by first presenting the need to "preserve a career" -- a degree of concern that now seems to be a tad hyperbolic -- this all has more than a hint of helicopter managing. And so maybe this latest amendment is born from the realization that being this concerned about the prospect of injury might not be tenable for the future of the franchise.
Or maybe I'm talking out my ass.
Either way, it's funny that Ventura continues to be Ozzie Guillen's polar opposite in more ways than we know. At the end of Guillen's term, nearly every one of his personnel decisions were irrevocable, no matter how much contrary evidence piled up. Ventura is downright capricious by comparison, and if he keeps this up, nobody's going to know what his word means.