ST. PETERSBURG — White Sox left-hander Chris Sale grew up a Rays fan, with the Lakeland native seeing his first-ever professional game at Tropicana Field
That was on March 31, 1998, the day after Sale's ninth birthday, when his uncle took him to the inaugural Devil Rays opener.
On Monday, Sale did something that no pitcher has done in the previous 1,156 games at the Trop, striking out a stadium-record 15 in handing the Rays a 2-1 loss in front of a bunch of friends and family.
"It was awesome," he said.
It also spoiled the best start of the season for Rays rookie left-hander Matt Moore (1-5), who struck out 10 and allowed two runs over a career-long seven-inning outing. But Moore was saddled with the loss in front of a Memorial Day crowd of 22,227.
"I don't know what it was like facing Randy Johnson when he was young, but (Sale) has got great stuff and I think he's got a real bright future," Zobrist said. "He's a phenomenal young pitcher and is going to be good for a long time."
It was the first time the Rays (28-20, still tied for first in the AL East after the Orioles lost to the Blue Jays) saw Sale as a starter after the 2010 first-round pick spent the previous two years in relief. Maddon wanted to give Sale a "different look," resting his top left-handed hitters — Carlos Peña, Luke Scott and Matt Joyce. All three entered the game late, with Scott and Joyce pinch-hitting in the ninth, but the damage had been done by Sale, whom Maddon said had "uncanny command" of his offspeed pitches.
"That guy could have punched out a lot of teams 15 times (Monday)," Maddon said. "His stuff was that good."
Moore, 22, was good, too, with improved fastball command, a strong changeup, and steady tempo on the mound.
"He looked a lot more comfortable and definitely had a great game to build off emotionally," Maddon said.
But Moore blew a lead for the fifth time in eight starts. Catcher Jose Lobaton, activated from the disabled list Monday, had picked up his first career RBI with a fourth-inning single, one of the Rays' three hits that matched a season low.
White Sox first baseman Adam Dunn delivered the biggest blow, a mammoth two-run homer in the sixth off Moore that went 448 feet, one-hopping the back wall in right. Moore said it was a "mistake," a fastball low and away that was "where (Dunn) likes the ball."
"I really thought that was going to hit the scoreboard when he hit it," Maddon said. "It was a helium ball. It was just staying up there."
Maddon said it was a matchup of two of the better young left-handers in the American League, and you have to go back to 1901 to find the last time opposing starters 23 or younger combined for 25 strikeouts (Cubs' Tom Hughes and Reds' Noodles Hahn had 26). Sale's 15 strikeouts topped the Trop's previous best of 14, set by three-time Cy Young award winner Pedro Martinez on July 7, 1999.
"Matt pitched a phenomenal game — we couldn't have asked him to do any more," Zobrist said. "But Chris Sale pitched a great game, too."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]