CHICAGO — For all the deep breaths he took before the game, Chris Sale sure was a picture of calm once he stepped on the mound. More important for the White Sox, he was the definition of dominant.
Sale outpitched James Shields, Tyler Flowers homered and the White Sox beat the Kansas City Royals 1-0 in the season opener on Monday.
The White Sox believe they’re in position to make a run at the AL Central title even though they made no splashy additions while the rest of the division loaded up. They’re off to a good start after a late fade left them three games behind Detroit a year ago.
A dominant performance by Sale and Flowers’ drive leading off the fifth against Shields were just enough to beat a team that’s trying to make a big jump after finishing with a losing record 17 of the past 18 seasons. It also gave the White Sox a rare win over the Royals, who took 12 of 18 from them a year ago.
Sale was a first-round draft pick in 2010 out of Florida Gulf Coast University, whose basketball team was the darlings of this year’s NCAA men’s tournament. He said the toughest part of Monday’s game was the wait beforehand. But he watched other games and took deep breaths, trying to clear his mind.
“I tried not to hurt myself with my own thoughts,” he said.
Sale (1-0) showed the form that made him a 17-game winner and an All-Star in his first season as a starter. On a chilly day when the game-time temperature was 44, he allowed just seven hits and struck out seven while walking one.
Sale got an assist in the seventh when second baseman Gordon Beckham dived to his right to snag Lorenzo Cain’s line drive with a runner on first, and he left to a standing ovation after Alcides Escobar’s single with two outs in the eighth.
Nate Jones came in and, after Escobar stole second, threw a wild pitch while walking Billy Butler to put runners on first and third. Matt Thornton then struck out Mike Moustakas on three pitches to end the threat, and Addison Reed worked the ninth for the save.
Sale, meanwhile, backed up the White Sox’s decision to reward him with a new five-year deal this spring and the opening day start.
“I think a lot of stuff’s been thrown at him in spring training,” manager Robin Ventura said. “He gets the contract, he gets the opening day. There’s a lot of expectations of him, but that all comes with it.”
He said Sale has “come along great.”
And Butler was impressed: “He’s been pitching pretty well the last year and had another really good game out there.
Shields (0-1) was a tough-luck loser even though he gave the Royals exactly what they envisioned when they acquired him from Tampa Bay. The former All-Star lasted six innings, allowing just one run and eight hits while striking out six without a walk.
Along with the addition of Ervin Santana from the Los Angeles Angels and the re-signing of Jeremy Guthrie after he dazzled in a short stint with Kansas City last season, the Royals believe they have the arms to challenge reigning division champion Detroit and make the playoffs for the first time since the 1985 championship season.
“That’s exactly what I expect,” manager Ned Yost said. “We get further into the year and he’d go back out. That’s how good he was throwing the ball. Early, I limit them to 100 pitches. Guys like James and Santana and Guthrie take your 100 pitches and go to work.”
Chicago finally broke through when Flowers drove a high 2-2 changeup out to left-center leading off the fifth. It was his first homer since he went deep against Kansas City last Sept. 8, and it was a promising sight for the organization. After all, one reason the White Sox let A.J. Pierzynski sign with Texas was they believed Flowers was ready to become the everyday catcher.
“If every day could be like today, it’ll be fine,” Flowers said. “I really don’t think about it much. Hopefully, in a couple weeks or a couple months, I’ll quit getting asked all these questions about A.J. and what size shoe I wear.”