White Sox pitcher Chris Sale is baseball's biggest bargain

Ace lefty gets outdueled by Tigers' Scherzer but rates higher in terms of respect

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White Sox starter Chris Sale on Tigers starter Max Scherzer.

When White Sox ace Chris Sale entered the dugout Thursday night after his 10th strikeout ended the Tigers' seventh inning, he happily exchanged handshakes and high-fives with teammates.

The warm reception at U.S. Cellular Field after Sale's 116th and final pitch beat his hotheaded reaction the last time he left a game, Saturday night against the Angels after he gave up a grand slam to Mike Trout. Let's just say that outburst dispelled any notion that American League pitchers can't swing a bat.

"He's emotional. That's fine with me," manager Robin Ventura said of Sale before the Sox's 4-0 loss. "That's just part of his makeup, probably what drives him. He breaks some stuff. There are a lot of guys who do that."

There aren't many guys who can do what Sale and Tigers starter Max Scherzer did at 35th and Shields. They expertly conspired on the pitchers' duel everybody expected. As good as Sale was, Scherzer pitched even better, masterfully giving up just three hits in recording his first complete game in 179 career starts.

By the fourth inning, when both teams finally managed their first hit, the threat of scoring was so low that the 20,626 fans wondered whether they had stumbled onto a World Cup soccer game. The key run came in the fifth when Victor Martinez, who never seems to miss a good Sale, sent a 2-1 slider 356 feet over the left-field fence. It was Sale's only mistake of his first loss of the year.

"It was who was going to flinch first," Sale said. "Unfortunately, it was me."

Even before throwing a single pitch at the Cell, Sale already had edged Scherzer in a matchup harder to measure. No box score records respect, but if one did, any Sale-Scherzer showdown must include this: W: Security. L: Perspective.

Sale laid the groundwork for that moral victory in March 2013, when he signed a five-year, $32.5 million contract that impressed everybody but the players union. A year later, Scherzer turned down a six-year, $144 million offer from the Tigers. They promised no math in journalism school, but that amounts to $24 million per season and, if Scherzer pitches 200 innings, $40,000 per out.

Shamelessly, Scherzer wanted more. The Tigers showed the Show-Me State native the money, and it wasn't enough. Known as a smart pitcher, Scherzer the businessman had his reasons. Market value or not, it took equal parts guts and gall for a starter who turns 30 next month to reject that much money to pitch every fifth day — even a reigning Cy Young Award winner.

Not to mention the risk it created around Scherzer's every step, let alone every start. Since February, 34 professional pitchers have undergone Tommy John surgery. Still, Scherzer said no, citing agent Scott Boras' report that showed a pitcher's chances for injury decrease after four years but ignoring surgeries to peers Adam Wainwright, 32, and John Lackey, 35.

The insurance policy Scherzer purchased as a precaution, according to Sports Illustrated, protects him to an unknown degree from injury — but not criticism. It's America. Scherzer has every right to pursue every last dollar. Just as everybody else in the real world maintains the right to wonder how a man playing a kid's game became so out of touch.

Even if Scherzer wins 20 games and eventually signs for $175 million or more, he always will be the guy who volunteered to be baseball's 2014 symbol of greed. The Tigers should replace the old English "D" on Scherzer's uniform with a dollar sign or spell his name on the back like this: $cherzer.

As Scherzer drove a wedge between him and the Tigers, Sale humbly planted roots with the Sox. The Scherzer hubbub came two months after Dodgers lefty Clayton Kershaw signed a seven-year, $215 million contract. Asked before the season whether he regretted signing such a team-friendly, below-market deal before the pitching boom, Sale answered in a way that makes him as endearing off the field as he is overpowering on it.

Never did Sale complain or drop hints of demanding a new deal. How much money did Sale leave on the table? The lefty never considered calculating.

"There is not one ounce of me that feels bad about that or even second-guessing myself," Sale told me. "It was easier to get through last year. It cleared my mind. I'm 12 years old again, just showing up to the park to play a game. I'm proud of what I've done. I'd rather play this game underpaid than overpaid — it's a little easier on your shoulders."

One of baseball's best pitchers also happens to be the game's biggest bargain.

And on a rare night on the South Side when Sale was outpitched by Scherzer, everybody got their money's worth.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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