David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
CHICAGO - The night didn't feel all that much different from the one in Flushing two years earlier. But this was the South Side, not Citi Field. And the manager in question was Robin Ventura, a former Met, rather than Terry Collins.
White Sox ace Chris Sale, the sidearm-slinging wonder, was fresh off a DL stint for a flexor tendon strain in his left forearm. Not the career-changing labrum surgery that Johan Santana had endured, but still a concern. So Sale took the mound Thursday night at U.S. Cellular Field knowing his pitches were numbered.
At 7:09 p.m. local time, it didn't seem like a big deal. Just Ventura looking out for Sale in his first start back. But after five perfect innings and nine strikeouts, it was beginning to look like a very big deal. At one point, Sale turned to Ventura and said, "You picked a bad night to do something like that."
The Yankees appeared helpless against Sale. He struck out the side in the first and did it again in the third. When contact was made, it was a soft pop-up or feeble grounder, although Yangervis Solarte got a fly ball all the way to center in the fifth.
The clock, however, was ticking. Sale's count was at 73 to start the sixth inning, but John Ryan Murphy helped him by grounding out on the first pitch. Brendan Ryan's liner was the second out. But Zoilo Almonte ripped a two-seam fastball into centerfield for a solid single.
Ventura exhaled. Oddly enough, so did Sale.
"I don't think I've ever been more excited to give up a hit in my life," Sale said. "We had a plan. Do I like it? No. Do I respect it? Absolutely."
Afterward, it was easy for Ventura to say he would have pulled Sale regardless of whether the perfect game was intact. By then, this debate was a moot point. Ventura refused to divulge what Sale's pitch count actually was -- "I'm not going to tell you the number," he said -- but made it clear that Sale was not going the distance, even with history at stake. Sale finished with 86 pitches in six innings.
Ventura's opening line to his postgame news conference?
"He would not have thrown a perfect game," he said, smiling. "I can tell you that much. You have to stick to the plan."
Ah, yes, the plan. Two years ago, Collins was in a similar spot with Santana, who had missed the entire 2011 season rehabbing from shoulder surgery and was trying to ease back into full-time ace duty again. Depending on how you look back on it now, June 1 was either a magical night or a tragic one for the Mets, who got their long-awaited no-hitter but lost the $137.5-million cornerstone of the rotation.
By allowing Santana to throw 134 pitches, shoulder be damned, Collins helped him make franchise history. But knowing the possible consequences, he also had the power to take the ball away from Santana, and the decision not to do that haunts Collins to this day.
Before that night, Santana had passed the century mark in three starts, with a previous high of 108. He also was coming off back-to-back 96-pitch outings.
Did the no-hitter do irreparable damage? We know Santana was never the same afterward and that he wound up needing surgery again for a second labrum tear in the same shoulder.
This year, Santana is trying to make yet another comeback pitching in the Orioles' organization. He threw 48 pitches during an extended spring training game Thursday in Sarasota. He has yet to crack 90 mph with his fastball.
If we've learned anything in 2014, it's that pitchers get hurt a lot, some of them seriously. Many times, a plan can prevent that from happening. Other times, they get hurt anyway.
As Sale kept spinning the Yankees around in the batter's box, watching them flail away, he harbored no illusions of anything greater than a simple W. But he still made history. He became the first pitcher in at least 100 years to strike out 10 without allowing a run or walk -- and one hit or fewer -- against the Yankees.
Ninety-nine times out of 100, Almonte's hit would have wrecked everything for Sale and the White Sox. But because of the plan, Almonte changed nothing. And the White Sox seemed happier for it.
"I was relieved," Ventura said.
Knowing Sale, he'll get another chance.