CLEVELAND -- As Shin-Soo Choo remained sprawled face down in the dirt, grabbing his left hand and grimacing in pain after being hit by a pitch in the sixth inning on Monday night, it was a scary moment for the Indians on a couple of levels.
There was, of course, the knowledge that it was the same hand that was struck by a pitch last summer, costing Choo roughly six weeks on the disabled list. That history made the scene frightening enough. Beyond that, Cleveland knows it can ill afford to lose any hitter right now given the subpar showing by the offense.
Choo eventually shifted to his feet, shook off the pain and recovered. The lineup did not. The Indians' offense continued its early-season slumber, sending the team to a 4-2 loss to the White Sox at Progressive Field. In the lineup's latest lapse, a three-run misstep by starter Josh Tomlin in the first inning dug a hole too deep to overcome.
"It's tough when you're not generating any offense, as we are right now," Indians manager Manny Acta said.
The offense has been a concern for the past two years and the first four games of this season have not eased any worries about the group's ability to make Cleveland a legitimate contender. The starting rotation has provided a string of solid efforts, but has had little room for error and only one win to show for its work.
White Sox lefty Chris Sale toyed with Cleveland's lineup all evening, limiting the group to one run over his 6 2/3 innings on the hill. He struck out five and kept the Tribe's hitters guessing with a sharp slider and varying pitch speeds.
"He basically dictated the ballgame," Indians third baseman Jason Donald said.
The Indians (1-3) limped away from Monday night's loss with a .153 team batting average (23-for-150) and averaging only 3.5 runs per game to this point. Considering the first two games of the year included 28 innings, it is fair to note that the Tribe has managed an average of only 2.7 runs per nine innings of play.
The lone run against Sale came in the sixth inning, when Choo reached base after being hit. Cleveland's right fielder promptly stole second base and then scored on an RBI single from Carlos Santana. The Tribe's only other breakthrough came courtesy of a solo homer from Jose Lopez in the ninth inning.
Acta said it is still far too early to become overly concerned about the offense.
"You just have to stay positive and continue to encourage the guys," Acta said. "Four games is not going to define the offense of a ballclub. That's all there is to it. It's kind of early still. We'd rather have six or seven runs every day on the board, but it hasn't happened.
"We're pitching good, so that gives us time to wait until our offense gets going."
Aside from a shaky first inning, Tomlin (0-1) was solid in his season debut for the Tribe. The right-hander allowed four runs on seven hits and ended with seven strikeouts and one walk in his five innings. The strikeouts contributed to an uncharacteristically high 95 pitches, forcing Tomlin out of the game earlier than Cleveland might have hoped.
In the first inning, Tomlin surrendered a leadoff home run to White Sox center fielder Alejandro De Aza before striking out the next two batters. The righty then induced a chopper up the middle off the bat of Paul Konerko, who reached safely after shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was unable to corral the ball cleanly behind the mound.
A.J. Pierzynski capitalized on that miscue, launching a two-run home run to right field that pushed the Indians behind, 3-0. Tomlin was not about to fault Cabrera for Konerko's infield single and the outburst that followed for Chicago (2-2).
"It was kind of a long run for him," Tomlin said. "I don't think he would've got there. The ball was just out of his reach. It wasn't anything he misplayed."
Tomlin did allow one more run -- Brent Morel delivered an RBI single in the fifth inning -- but his outing was admirable given the first-inning struggles. His performances followed a trio of strong efforts from Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Derek Lowe, and Cleveland's rotation has combined for a 2.52 ERA through four games.
The hitters understand the starters are not the reason behind the first three losses.
"Our starters have done a great job," said Donald, who led off and went 0-for-4 for the Tribe. "They've kept us in ballgames. We've been competitive because of our starting pitching. They've gone deep into games and given us chances to win ballgames. That's really all you can ask out of those guys.
"They're definitely holding up their end of the ballgame."
As for the offense, Donald said it often takes just one big rally to get things rolling.
"I definitely think it is early," Donald said. "This is a long haul. This is a long season. All it takes is a few guys to get going. It seems like when a couple guys get hot, other guys are able to feed off that. It's all about momentum."
And it is about keeping the hitters off the disabled list.
Fortunately for the Indians, Choo was not seriously hurt by Sale's errant pitch.
"That was a big scare," Acta said. "It shattered his thumb protector. Same thumb as last year. We're glad that nothing came out of that."