CHICAGO – When reigning American League MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander hands out a compliment to a division rival, take notice.
In the thick of a playoff race, even Verlander could appreciate the special talent that is left-hander Chris Sale. Verlander and Sale were supposed to headline Thursday’s series finale between the Tigers and White Sox, except rain washed out the anticipated showdown with first place in the AL Central up for grabs.
“It’s not easy; he’s making it look easy for the most part,” Verlander said. “Just his ability to make adjustments and pitch an entire season at this level as a [first-year starter] is, like I said, not an easy thing to do.”
Talent never has been the problem. The Sox knew they were getting a lively arm with a killer fastball when they drafted Sale No. 13 overall in the 2010 draft. Sale became the first of his draft class to reach the majors, appearing out of the bullpen in 2010 and again in 2011.
But his transition to the rotation this season, though it took some convincing by Sale after a brief move to the bullpen, turned the Sox into a legit contender for the division title. Sale’s 16 wins not only lead the staff but are tied for second most in the league, and his 2.88 ERA is third best.
“I can tell you I’m not tickled to death we have to face Sale,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said before Thursday’s rained out game.
Sale’s ability to change gears pitch to pitch – at times firing a 95 mph fastball and following with a 91 mph fastball three pitches later – elevated his game to another level, earning Cy Young consideration in his third big league season.
“It’s difficult. It’s not hard to do, it’s hard to trust it,” Verlander said. “It’s not easy to be able to know you can throw one 96, 97 like he can but trust you can throw one at 90, 91 and still have an effective result.”
Changing his reliever mindset wasn’t easy for Sale. Instead of firing 15 pitches as hard as he could in occasional relief appearances the previous two seasons, Sale needed to learn how to become a starting pitcher. The ability to take off speed is remarkable, however, even for Sale.
“I think right around the Oakland start, early on in the year,” Sale said. “Just wasn’t feeling quite 100 percent. Still had success with changing speeds on fastball. I didn’t have one pitch. It was almost like it’s been working for me lately, so we’ll stick with that and that’s the game plan.”
Catcher A.J Pierzynski gets the up-close experience of watching Sale mature. Pieryznski credits Sale for improving in all facets of his game and learning how to use all his pitches. But even the 15-year veteran couldn’t help but be impressed with Sale’s in-season transformation.
“Most young guys have a hard time with [changing speeds on the same pitches], but he’s picked it right up and gone with it,” Pierzynski said. “It’s fun to watch, it’s fun to see especially a guy that’s still really young. It’s not something you see out of most guys of his age. Hopefully he’ll continue to get better for the team and the organization.”