Often times, when a player seen as the figurehead or dominant force on the team goes down, the games ahead serve as a reminder that there are other members of the team working and fighting every day, and playing a much larger role in keeping things competitive than initially realized.
There's certainly no more prominent example locally than the Chicago Bulls and Derrick Rose, since they've been forced to carve out a new status quo without him. Jay Cutler has never reached the point of reverence, but his absence laid bare how much of his success was the brilliance of his receivers, and now, the spunky and surprisingly ~.500 White Sox--awful pitching and all--have stayed in the neighborhood of .500 with their ace on the shelf. They're still a decent offense, with an increasingly capable bullpen, and they hang around in games enough to win their share of toss-ups.
But now Chris Sale is back, and who wants to bother thinking about that?
The Sox slid rather easily back into the mode of complete dependence Thursday night. They built a slim advantage while Sale completely eliminated the Yankees offense from the world of the living for six innings, and almost coughed up their lead after he departed. Sale is still 4-0 on the year, so he can and has been treated much worse.
After a month of anxiety and nailbiting and waiting for the news of grisly setback, Sale's return resembled his other arm fatigue absences. Rather than rusty, he was rejuvenated. The reduced workload had transformed him from Cy Young-caliber at 92-95 mph velocity, to a Perfect Game threat at 94-97 mph. The single he allowed with two outs in the sixth was all that spared us from an internal conflict of whether to demand rest for the most valuable player on the team, or to gawk at an unstoppable force chasing history. Even Sale recognized the conflict.
“'I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited to give up a hit in my life,' Sale joked. 'I knew I was done after that sixth. (Robin said) ‘You picked a bad night to do something like that.’ It was all in fun.'”
It was hinted at in his first four starts, and will get more play now, but lost in Sale's absence was the possibility that he might improbably have taken another step forward in his performance. His strikeouts are up at levels elite closers rack up (31.7%) while his control has stayed the same, and some excellent early batted ball luck has made his numbers look superhuman.
His change-up has fully taken over as his preferred weapon of choice. He's throwing it a third of the time, and it's his biggest swing-and-miss offering, and it's simply unfair given how hard it is for anyone to pick up his arm slot already. This is probably not the best time to ponder whether change-ups will be easier on Sale's arm than spinning frisbees, but his continued maturation is fascinating.
Every year, Sale reaches what I figure should be a plateau. He's reached a point where he's as good, and as effective with his pitch complement, his prospect pedigree and his physical ability, as we should ever have expected him to be able to become. Thinking that his 2012 would be his peak would have been perfectly reasonable, same for 2013. If he continues 2014 at this pace we will all marvel at his accomplishment and not dream of him doing better.
And then he'll show up for next year.
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