By Liam Jones
CHICAGO – On June 1, White Sox ace Chris Sale concluded a complete-game two-hitter in front of more than 23,000 fans at US Cellular Field. Backtrack to 2009 and the Eagles’ star put on a similar performance against Stetson, with just 75 people in attendance.
It’s safe to say that the former FGCU ace has experienced a change in scenery.
“At first I had some nerves and a little anxiety just because I had never pitched in front of thousands of people before,” Sale said of his first appearance with the White Sox. “But I enjoyed it and learned how to handle it and try to not pay attention to everyone in the stands.”
But Sale’s dominance on the mound has stayed consistent, if not grown, over the years. Out of Lakeland High School, his heat caught the eye of the Colorado Rockies, and he was drafted in the 21st round. Instead, Sale chose to attend Florida Gulf Coast University.
“I felt like at the time it was just a better opportunity for me. Not only to mature as a baseball player but as a person. Coming out of high school, I was 18 years old and didn’t really have a good grasp on life,” Sale admitted recently while sitting in the White Sox dugout the afternoon following a one-run, 10-strikeout performance against the Tigers.
His time at FGCU paid off big time. Sale kept his ears peeled to the coaching staff’s instructions and he quickly soared into the national discussion.
“I evolved into the pitcher I was supposed to be,” Sale said. “I always had a little bit of something there, but once I got down to FGCU with the coaching staff – they really pounded away at me and tried to get the best out of me each and every year.”
Just as Sale developed a multitude of pitches (he now boasts a 2-seam and 4-seam fastball, a changeup and slider) his approach to the game dramatically changed as well.
“For me, I had three different pitching coaches at FGCU. They each brought something different to the table in terms of pitching styles.” Sale surmised. “I got each aspect of the game and that really helped me out.”
His freshman season, the FGCU standout was guided by pitching coach Dan Roszel. “He was a mechanics guy,” Sale said.
Although scouts and media have criticized his sweeping, awkward-looking delivery, the 6-foot-6 southpaw perfected his own style at FGCU, to a point where it is now almost unhittable.
Pitching coach Derek Tate mentored Sale, predominantly on the “mental side,” during his sophomore year. He learned to “handle” the crowd and maintain a laser focus on just getting the next batter out.
And during his junior campaign in Fort Myers, Sale was under the guidance of Forrest Morgan, a “strength and conditioning guy.” Despite being tagged as susceptible to injury due to his unorthodox mechanics, his diligence has kept him relatively healthy.
“I spend a little more time doing forearm work with my elbow to strengthen the muscle around there,” Sale added. “But I wouldn’t say I do anything out of the ordinary.”
At FGCU, the culmination of Sale’s rapid development was put on display during his junior year, when he finished 11-0 with a 2.01 ERA en route to being named National Player of the Year by Collegiate Baseball. The Chicago White Sox called his name with the 13th overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, making the gangly lefty the highest drafted player from FGCU’s program.
The matured Sale quickly worked his way through the Sox minor league teams, and received his big league call up in August, becoming the first 2010 draftee to be called up. Not only was he the first draftee to be called up, but Sale became the first player in 20 years to reach the majors the same year in which he was drafted and just the fifth in MLB history to accomplish that feat.
“It was a surreal experience,” Sale said. “It’s something you dream of your whole life and you get there and think ‘What do I do now?’”
With only a few months in the farm system, he was forced to pick up subtleties on the fly.
“In terms of where you sit on the team plane – one day, I sat it someone’s seat … all right, I’ll just wait for everyone to settle in. Shagging batting practice, standing where the older guys stand, just little things like that,” Sale said of the MLB adjustments.
“Coming up with the guys I did, having veteran guys to guide me in the right direction really helped me out throughout that first year,” he continued.
“I leaned on Matt Thornton a lot just because he was left handed and a reliever,” Sale, who didn’t transition to a starter for the White Sox until the 2012 season, commented. “He has been one of the best left-handed relievers in the game for six or eight years now. I picked his brain and asked him how he goes about his business to be a professional and get guys out.”
After spending his first years in the bullpen, Sale’s excellence earned him a spot in the Sox starting rotation. In 2012, he finished 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA and was named an AL All-Star. Repeating his dominance in 2013, the former FGCU star was named to the All-Star Game for the second year in a row, and he earned his third straight All-Star nod in 2014.
“Looking back five years ago when I was in college, I never would have thought in a million years that all the things in between would have happened,” said Sale, whose 13 double-digit strikeout games stand tied for third all time in White Sox history.
Despite developing his craft in an ever-evolving game and striking out what seems to be the entire American League Central Division, Sale finds time to travel back and visit FGCU. He was featured at last year’s Night at the Nest and noticed the outstanding growth of the athletics department.
“The baseball team won their conference this year,” said Sale, who listed off the success of almost every FGCU team. “They have great things to look forward to … they are making strides and are very advanced for how young the school is.”
And the same is true of Chris Sale.