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Chris Sale, Tigers add conspiracy to unusual history

Accusations of sign-stealing and purpose-pitching fly in White Sox's series finale with Detroit

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We learned last year to expect the unexpected when Chris Sale faces the Tigers, and just when a quiet 2014 was just about to douse that phenomenon, stuff got even weirder Wednesday afternoon.

Sale accused the Tigers (and Victor Martinez in particular) of stealing signs, the Tigers accused Sale of plunking Martinez intentionally, binoculars gestures were exchanged ... add it all up, and the two parties aren't going to forget this when they face each other next year.

When raising the topic of sign-stealing -- especially from beyond the playing field -- it's pretty much impossible for plaintiffs to win in this situation. Whether it's Mark Buehrle floating a high-tech light system in Arlington, the Cardinals pointing the finger at a U.S. Cellular Field camera operator, or AL East teams protecting themselves against the "Man in White" at Rogers Centre, the accused team can shrug or smirk it away. The rumors may persist in baseball circles, but the shelf life of a public discussion never lasts too long.

That's because, in large part, it comes off as making excuses for poor pitching. Those claims by and against the White Sox in 2005 and 2006 came after rough/embarrassing losses, and so they're waved away as whining ex post facto.

This case is different, because you rarely see a pitcher or team making obvious note of it during the game -- especially when the pitcher hasn't been scored upon.

It's not just that Sale tipped his cap to somebody in right-center field, or made the binoculars gesture from the dugout. Something caught his eye in the outfield during his battle with Martinez in the third inning, after Martinez swung and missed on a 2-0 fastball on the outside corner. Sale kept looking in that direction while Tyler Flowers waited to give a sign. Then Flowers figured he should just go out to the mound.

The conversation was brief, although Flowers and Sale had a longer meeting as Martinez strode to the plate, so perhaps they had been operating under a theory.

We'll never know what they were thinking, or what they decided there. All we do know is that for the next three pitches, Flowers set up inside, Sale stayed away, and Martinez swung at each one. He chased a fastball well off the plate on 2-1, fouled off a backdoor slider on 2-1, and chased a fastball high and away for strike three. Afterward, Sale saluted a certain somebody in center as if to say, "Suck on that."


That could merely be coincidence, but the arguments on both sides rest on entirely circumstantial cases, which is what makes them so dumb, stupid and enjoyable.

"Victor hits Sale so hard that he's seeing black helicopters now."
"So it's weird that Martinez flailed wildly at everything after Sale stopped hitting the mitt, then."

That extends to the sixth inning.

"Sale's so paranoid that he's drilling Victor on purpose."
"Why would Sale put the tying run on base with a one-run lead?"

Although in this case, Sale probably meant to make a statement of some kind with that fastball. When he inadvertently brushed back Prince Fielder the first pitch after a homer last July to set The Sensible Beef in motion, he was profusely apologetic after the game. This time around, not so much.

"When he hit me, he was looking right at me," Martinez said. "Then I look at him and he didn't say anything. I took my stuff off and all of a sudden I hear this."

Said Sale: "Obviously, we know the numbers [he has] against myself. If you are going to pitch him in, you got to get in. One got away."

One difference -- the high-and-tight to Fielder was during an at-bat, and there was no interaction between the two during the game. Martinez gave Sale a hard stare, Sale wasn't impressed, and so Sale wasn't going to be charitable.

Sale could very well have a legit case, and we know he has his pride, but there's no real benefit to pursuing the truth this way. Brad Ausmus was understandably hot after the game, because he could've lost a key hitter the way the Pirates lost Andrew McCutchen to Arizona Justice. On top of that, he started a meme, and I imagine there'll be plenty of fans with binoculars in the stands at Comerica Park during the first Sox-Tigers series in 2015, and a bad night/day will only encourage them, similar to Pedro Martinez and "the Yankees are my daddy."

Sale didn't even get the win for his last start. Victor Martinez came around to score the tying run, Sale left with a no-decision, and the bullpen collapsed to feed the narrative that Sale fired up the Tigers, even though shoddy relief work has been a hallmark of Sale starts all season, conspiracies or not.

Which is another set of circumstances you can bend whichever way you'd like. However, if the Tigers needed this to spark them, they're better off keeping that to themselves.