The most anticipated Royals season in a generation opened Monday in a shutout loss to a pitcher they bypassed in the 2010 draft in the belief he was too slender and quirky to pitch effectively as a starter.
That would be lefty Chris Sale who, until recently, was the only reason for many fans to know of Florida Gulf Coast University. That the Royals weren’t alone in once viewing him as a reliever doesn’t ease the sting.
Sale worked 7 ⅔ strong innings in outdueling James Shields, the Royals’ highest profile off-season acquisition, in Chicago’s 1-0 victory on a cold, clear but shadow-filled afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field.
“You do a 3 o’clock game for Opening Day,” designated hitter Billy Butler said, “and the shadows were tough. It was really throwing the depth perception off on that slider (of Sale’s). And he has a good slider.”
Butler saw a few killer sliders at the game’s pivotal point, but hold on ... we’ll get to that.
The White Sox scored the game’s only run on Tyler Flowers’ leadoff homer in the fifth inning. It came on a changeup — Shields’ signature pitch; and it came after a swinging strike on a well-thrown changeup.
“With two strikes,” Shields said, “I left a changeup up. Normally, I get that down in the zone and get an out right there.”
It was, really, Shields’s only mistake. He permitted eight hits while throwing 102 pitches in six innings. He struck out six and walked none.
He was good.
Sale was simply better in limiting the Royals to seven singles while striking out seven and walking one. Nate Jones, Matt Thornton and Addison Reed closed out the victory.
“It was exciting (to pitch on Opening Day),” Sale said. “It was everything I thought it would be and more. I thought I did a really good job of not getting too amped up early or late.
“It ended up being a pretty good day.”
Those decisive sliders to Butler came in the third inning when the Royals loaded the bases with one out. It was the only real threat they mounted against Sale.
Jeff Francoeur and Alcides Escobar sandwiched singles around a walk to Alex Gordon, which brought Butler to the plate. Sale escaped by striking out Butler before retiring Mike Moustakas on a fly into short right field.
“He threw me some really good pitches in that at-bat,” Butler said, “and I maybe expanded (the zone) a little bit. I thought those pitches were in the zone, but they broke late.
“That’s how an All-Star-caliber pitcher gets you out.”
Chicago manager Robin Ventura opted against a Sale/Butler rematch after Escobar’s two-out single in the eighth. In came Jones, who walked Butler after Escobar stole second and reached third on a wild pitch.
Jarrod Dyson replaced Butler as a pinch runner before Ventura summoned Thornton for left-on-left matchup against Moustakas — and Thornton struck out Moustakas on three pitches.
“No excuse,” Moustakas said. “He does exactly what he does, and he’s a fantastic pitcher, but I want to be in those situations. I have to get the job done right there.”
Reed worked around a one-out walk to Eric Homser in the ninth inning for the save. Hosmer stole second on Lorenzo Cain’s swinging third strike, but Reed retired Francoeur on a grounder to short for the final out.
“Oh, man, dynamic pitching on both sides,” manager Ned Yost said. “All day. Sale was phenomenal. James Shields was phenomenal. The difference in the game was one high changeup. That was it.”
The Royals took a long look at Sale before the 2010 draft before spending the fourth overall pick on shortstop Christian Colon, who will open this season at Class AAA Omaha.
Chicago subsequently selected Sale with the 13th overall pick and, following conventional wisdom, put him in their bullpen once they promoted him to the majors later that season.
Sale made 79 consecutive relief appearances through the 2011 season before the White Sox decided last year to shift him to their rotation. He responded by making the All-Star team and going 17-8 with a 3.05 ERA.
“I faced this team a few times before, “ Sale said, “so I was just mixing things up. The more you fill up the zone, the more they put swings on the ball. You get some outs and stay in there a little longer.”
The Royals also suffered a shutout loss in their 2012 opener when they wasted six shutout innings from Bruce Chen in a 5-0 loss to the Angels in Anaheim, Calif.
“The only great thing about today,” Moustakas said, “was Shields goes out and does what he does. It’s a tough loss when we can’t put up one run to help him.”