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Chris Sale stumbled on Saturday in Detroit, taking the loss as the White Sox slipped out of first place in the American League Central with a 7-1 loss to the Tigers, and this certainly rates as rare. It's been about 2 1/2 months since Sale talked his way back into the White Sox starting rotation, and nobody -- including Sale's left elbow -- would classify that move as anything other than a rousing success.
Thanks in large part to their top two starters -- Sale, who, at age 23, is in his first professional season as a starter, and Jake Peavy, who is pitching brilliantly on a right shoulder that was subjected to experimental surgery -- the White Sox rotation has been the best in the division.
Yet because of the physical demands being placed on that pair, the Sox, who have dropped four straight, are subject to some degree of vulnerability.
Vulnerable enough to land a starting upgrade before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline? Well, that remains to be seen.
But the Sox already struck to augment their bullpen, acquiring veteran righty Brett Myers from Houston and activating Jesse Crain off the disabled list on Saturday, and it would appear some starting help might be in order if they're going to topple the Tigers.
"We're sort of looking outside," assistant general manager Rick Hahn said, "but the key is getting our own guys back."
That means Gavin Floyd, who is slated to return to the rotation on Monday after a short disabled list stint, and, hopefully, John Danks. But Danks hasn't started a game since May 19 and is currently limited to long toss, so his timetable is murky, at best.
As far as the rest of the rotation is concerned, Phil Humber, who will start on Sunday in Motown, has had his share of struggles since his April perfecto, and rookies Jose Quintana and Dylan Axelrod round out the current options. Axelrod has a 5.30 ERA and was optioned to Triple-A Charlotte after Saturday's game, and while Quintana has largely been brilliant, his staying power is untested.
Ultimately, rotation staying power is what will decide this AL Central race between the Sox, Tigers and Indians. All three teams have a need in that department as the Deadline nears, and Chicago's is sneakily pressing because of the possibility of late-season fatigue from Sale and Peavy.
Really, all the Sox can do with Peavy is cross their fingers and hope for the best, because he's been in uncharted waters from the day two years ago that doctors reattached his ruptured right lat muscle. He's already surpassed his 2011 innings total and is on pace for his highest workload since 2008, if not earlier.
"There's no road map," Hahn said.
Sale, on the other hand, is a young, pliable piece that must be handled carefully. And that's just how the Sox have handled him.
No, the Sox haven't placed a cap on Sale's innings. We've been beaten over the head with the talk about Stephen Strasburg's innings limit, which will likely lead to a September shutdown. With Sale, on the other hand, the Sox have taken a different approach, manipulating his schedule to give him ample rest between outings. Only five times this year has Sale started on the traditional four days' rest. He's had five days or more 11 times.
"It's basically been like a college schedule, where he's pitching every Friday night, it seems," pitching coach Don Cooper said. "I really don't think the whole thing could have been handled any better."
There were questions about the way the Sox were handling Sale in early May. He was five starts into his season when he alerted the Sox to some tenderness he felt in his elbow. The team yanked him from its rotation and thrust him into the closer's role.
"He had that dream of starting since he was in the second grade, and we're not in the business of taking away people's dreams," Cooper said. "But first, we want health. The words he was using to describe his discomfort raised concerns."
Sale made just one relief appearance before a heartfelt plea to general manager Kenny Williams led to his re-insertion into the starting spot, and that conversation has turned out to be a key to Chicago's season.
Further conversations with Sale will be equally important in determining how the rest of his season plays out. Obviously, the Sox are counting on Saturday's result -- five runs allowed on seven hits, with four walks and six strikeouts in seven innings -- being merely a blip on the radar and not the start of some second-half slide. After all, the left-hander had won his previous eight decisions, and he's 11-3 with a sparkling 2.37 ERA on the year.
Communication will continue to be key going forward.
"A big part of it is Chris being diligent with his program, his 'prehab' work and also being honest with us about how he's feeling, as well as what our eyes are seeing with his mechanics and his stuff," Hahn said. "I think the goal with all these guys is to try to avoid throwing innings while overly fatigued, because that's when the mechanics break down and injuries start."
An injury, naturally, can happen to anyone at any time. But monitoring fatigue is a point of prevention, and -- as the Strasburg and Sale situations illustrate -- different teams handle that in different ways.
"For some guys, that means a 30-percent jump [in innings]; for some, that means a pitch count over 120," Hahn said. "There's no magic formula or clear cutoff of when you dramatically start decreasing the risk. So from our standpoint, if we can decrease the amount of pitches thrown while fatigued, that's at least going to help."
Sale has been a huge help to the Sox so far. But given the uncertainty of what Sale and Peavy will have to offer in the season's waning weeks, the Sox would be wise to seek out more help before the Deadline.