CHICAGO -- The phrase "Phil Humber, spot starter" just might be changed to "Phil Humber, interim fifth starter" following the right-hander's performance during the 4-2 White Sox victory over the Rays on Saturday afternoon at U.S. Cellular Field.
Marking the first appearance by a White Sox fifth starter this season, Humber worked a career-high six innings and threw 85 pitches, even after throwing 39 in relief during Wednesday's victory in Kansas City. He made liberal use of his changeup and curveball to limit Tampa Bay (1-7) to one run on four hits, while striking out four and walking two.
"First time I've seen him. I was impressed with his strike-throwing ability," said Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon of Humber. "He was getting ahead a lot. He had good command of his breaking ball also. Overall, his success primarily was that he pounded the zone. He got in good counts."
"There was only one righty against me in the lineup, so I threw my changeup quite a bit and used the curveball when I needed to and located the fastball," Humber said. "I didn't shake [catcher] A.J. [Pierzynski] off but once or twice."
This dominance from Humber and just enough offense from the White Sox (5-3) against Wade Davis (0-2) gave the South Siders a 4-1 lead entering the ninth inning. It was familiar and potentially scary territory, with the White Sox holding a three-run advantage and Matt Thornton on the mound in Friday's game, a frame that saw Tampa Bay rally for five unearned runs to snare a 9-7 victory.
Thornton did not pitch the ninth on Saturday, with rookie Chris Sale instead getting the call. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen reiterated that Thornton will get the main thrust of the closing opportunities and was out of action for this contest because he was beat up after throwing 33 pitches in his second straight blown save.
So, Sale was the choice. The young left-hander might be the choice again, or it might be Sergio Santos, who has yet to be scored upon in 2011 after Saturday's scoreless eighth, with Guillen using his gut feeling to pick the last line of pitching defense.
"Obviously, Thornton is going to get most opportunities," Guillen said. "But I'm the manager of this ballclub and I'm going to put the best guys out there, the ones I think are going to do the job."
"Whenever your name is called, you have to go out there and do your job and do it the best you can," Sale said. "It just so happened today I was throwing in the ninth. So, you go out there with the same mindset. Get three outs and get this game wrapped up."
Sale picked up the first White Sox save this season, but not without a little drama. Felipe Lopez homered to open the ninth, one pitch after Sale came inside with a 96-mph fastball. Lopez took umbrage with the pitch and flipped his bat toward Sale after hitting the long ball.
Lopez's maneuver caused an exchange of words with Pierzynski as Lopez crossed home plate, as Pierzynski stood up for his teammate. Guillen said that exchange was just part of the game, and Pierzynski spoke more with his wry smile than in his words concerning the situation.
"I fully support my team," Pierzynski said.
A two-run double from Pierzynski with two outs in the seventh gave the White Sox their three-run cushion. Pierzynski ripped the ball to right but wasn't quite sure if it would fall in with Sam Fuld patrolling the area.
With the bases loaded and two outs in the fourth, Juan Pierre launched a drive to right looking like a bases-clearing extra-base blast, that is, unless it had enough to clear the fence for a grand slam. Fuld was playing shallow and made a quick dash back and over toward the right-field corner, before diving and coming up with the catch at the edge of his glove as he hit the warning track.
"Honestly, he ran like 50 yards to get to that ball," Pierzynski said. "It was an incredible catch and I tip my hat to him for one, he didn't kill himself on the fence, and two, he got there and made the play. It was an amazing play."
"Where he was playing, the situation, this kid went a long way," Guillen said. "If that ball landed, it would be a different ballgame. It's just a [great] play."
Gordon Beckham's third-inning sacrifice fly and Brent Morel's spinning single barely clearing the pitcher's mound in the fourth marked the total offense posted against Davis. Morel's hit actually came on a pitch almost hitting him on the wrist.
Thanks to Humber, that output held up. Jake Peavy continues to make progress toward a return to the Majors, possibly at the end of the month, and a fifth starter isn't truly needed again until April 19 due to an off-day on Thursday. But Humber's strong showing Saturday could force the White Sox to bring him back on a regular turn Friday and until Peavy comes back.
"He should. The way he threw? I don't see why not," Guillen said. "I gotta wait and see what we're going to do."
"Take it one day at a time. If I get another start, then I'll treat it the same way," Humber said. "I've had plenty of chances. It's just relaxing and allowing yourself to get out of the way. A lot of times I put too much pressure on myself."