CHICAGO -- The return of Chris Sale to the White Sox starting rotation during Kansas City's 5-0 victory at U.S. Cellular Field on Saturday night began with a thud.
Six base runners in the first seven hitters. Nine balls called out of the first 11 pitches. Three runs in for the Royals (12-20) before the White Sox (16-18) stepped to the plate.
But like most highly-talented hurlers, Sale (3-2) found his bearings quickly and managed to last five innings on 103 pitches despite a 42-pitch opening frame.
"He battled," said White Sox manager Robin Ventura of Sale. "Even in that situation, the way it started, to still get five out of it is pretty good."
"I don't think we got to him," said Royals manager Ned Yost of upending Sale. "His command was off and we did a good job of getting his pitch count up and scoring three in the first, and then he settled in and did a pretty darn good job of getting through five innings."
It was especially impressive considering Sale looked as if he might not survive the opening inning in his first start since May 1 and sixth of the season. The southpaw, who issued just nine free passes over his first 33 innings this season, walked Jarrod Dyson and Johnny Giavotella to start the game, and then gave up Alex Gordon's single to right to load the bases with none out.
Billy Butler's single that rolled to the right-field wall scored the game's first run and left the bases loaded again, until Jeff Francoeur hit what looked like a routine double-play grounder up the middle to Gordon Beckham. The sure-handed second baseman grabbed the grounder as he was moving toward second, stepped on second and had plenty of time to nail Francoeur at first. But he air-mailed the throw past first baseman Paul Konerko and allowed a third run to score.
Eric Hosmer followed with a swinging-bunt single and when Irving Falu blooped a single to right, the bases were re-loaded with one out. Sale worked his way out of the jam with an Alcides Escobar pop out to Dayan Viciedo in left and Humberto Quintero's fly ball to Viciedo at the warning track.
The damage had already been done, though, which was a fact that hit home for Sale, who consistently stands out as his own harshest critic.
"That first inning was terrible as far as command. I didn't have any of my offspeed stuff working," said Sale, who actually threw fastballs on his first 10 pitches according to MLB.com's Gameday. "I was just kind of throwing the ball all over the place.
"Bouncing back from that was big. I kind of turned the momentum. But my mindset is different. That's what they needed from me for the first inning, too. Three out of the gate is hard for anybody. The way they were throwing the ball over there, they just did a great job and I got outpitched."
Sale exited the first with just 23 of his first 42 pitches going for strikes. From there, Sale looked like the ace hurler in the making before he was moved from the rotation to closer last Friday, due to a tender left elbow, and then returned to the rotation this past weekend, due to his powers of persuasion and a pristine MRI on said elbow.
Nine Royals in a row were set down before Escobar's one-out double in the fourth. Sale ultimately allowed three runs on seven hits, while fanning three and walking two.
"You are going to let him go until he found it. It wasn't an issue," said Ventura of Sale's first start back. "I think for one inning, getting out there at 40 pitches is a lot for a pitcher. He would learn something out of that, being able to control it and get it back and still finish up five innings. It's still a good effort."
While Sale settled down after the first, Kansas City's Luke Hochevar (3-3) was solid right from the start. The right-hander limited the White Sox to three hits over seven innings and only allowed two runners on base in the same frame during the second. With A.J. Pierzynski on second and Alex Rios on first, Alexei Ramirez hit into an inning-ending double play.
Hochevar entered this contest with 16 earned runs and 19 hits allowed over his last 6 1/3 innings, covering his last two starts, while striking out two and walking four. The White Sox offense stood as the cure-all on this particular evening in its fourth shutout of 2012.
"Obviously, my last two weren't what I wanted by any means," said Hochevar, who has a 2.66 ERA lifetime at U.S. Cellular. "But sometimes things get tough and you've just got to keep fighting like crazy."
Greg Holland and Aaron Crow struck out five White Sox hitters in the final six outs, capping off a less-than-memorable performance. But the Indians and Tigers lost, leaving the American League Central standings unchanged and one team over .500 in the entire division.
Saturday's outing finished better than it started for Sale, who had pitched once in relief on May 8 in Cleveland since his last start. He wouldn't blame the hoopla and mini-controversy from the last week for any of the opening problems.
"I'm a big boy and can handle all of that and leave that stuff in here, and when I'm out there go about my business and go about my job," Sale said. "My arm felt great, my body felt great, my mind was right. I just didn't put it all together. I didn't produce what this team needed."