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If Chris Sale can stay healthy, he could be headed for Cooperstown

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Updated: July 16, 2014 11:02PM

It’s out there for every pitcher, that ominous dark cloud hanging over the “when, not if” question about elbow and shoulder injuries.

Pitchers get hurt. It’s a cold, hard fact of baseball life. About one-third of major-league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery.

White Sox left-hander Chris Sale isn’t worried. It’s not that he thinks he’s immune — Sale spent five weeks on the disabled list with a flexor muscle strain near his elbow — he just knows that he’s better off forging ahead, taking the proper steps to stay as healthy as possible and just pitch.

Sitting down for an interview this week before he pitched in his third All-Star Game in as many seasons as a starting pitcher, Sale knocked on a wood table.

“I don’t think about injuries, surgery or going on the DL too often,’’ he said.

“Play the game. Obviously, when you play the game, things will happen, and you have to deal with that. But I’m more about how I’m feeling now, and I’m just going to keep pitching. If something comes up, we handle it. If not, we keep going.’’

If Sale, 25, keeps going the way he has for an extended time, he will retire as one of the greatest pitchers in Sox history. Maybe higher than that.

“He’s damn good now and on the road to greatness,’’ Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said. “If you do for a long time what he’s done, you might even be — I’m not saying he is — a Hall of Famer.’’

Cooper said much depends on how Sale’s prized arm feels, and to that end, “for me, the balancing act is giving him every opportunity to go on and be great and keep him healthy. How much is enough and how much is too much.’’

Nobody knows the precise answer to that when it comes to pitch counts and frequency of pitching. Sale threw a career-high 127 pitches April 17 against the Red Sox before he went on the disabled list, a correlation that touches a nerve with Cooper. Before Sale pitched that night, Cooper happened to see a graphic on TV showing Sale ahead of lefties Randy Johnson and Sandy Koufax at the same point in their careers.

“Sale blew them both away — in every freaking category,’’ Cooper said. “Which said to me, holy smokes, I know he’s good. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’s on the road to greatness. And I guarantee you, the Hall of Fame is full of guys who’ve thrown 125, 130, 135 pitches.’’

With experience, Sale understands his body better. His bullpen sessions between starts are more touch and feel than hard labor. He knows the importance of open communication with Cooper, manager Robin Ventura and the training and conditioning staff. Sale is not starting this weekend when the Sox host the Astros and likely will start Monday against the Royals, which means he’ll get an 11-day break, not counting his one inning in the All-Star Game.

“Especially going through a couple of years of starting under my belt now,’’ he said. “The difference between being a little bit sore . . . there’s a difference between hurting and being injured. When you’re injured, you can’t play. When you’re hurting, you know, you get out there.’’

When he’s out there, he’s about as good as anybody. Sale is 8-1 with a 2.08 ERA and 102 strikeouts and 16 walks in 95 innings. His 4.0 WAR (wins above replacement) ranks sixth among major-league pitchers. Told of Cooper’s Hall of Fame suggestion, Sale almost blushes.

“That’s what Coop is supposed to say,’’ Sale said, laughing. “He’s like your dad who tells you you’re the best kid on the Little League field. Every kid’s dad says that.

“He thinks highly of me, and I think highly of him.

“Would the Hall of Fame be cool? Absolutely. But, really, I just got done with my first cup of coffee and am starting my second, so we have a ways to go.’’

Cooper, Sale and everyone else who cares about the Sox hope Sale has a ways to go. Sale said he can’t predict the future or change what has happened, so don’t worry about it, just enjoy the ride while you’re in the car.

“I’m just riding the wave I’m on,’’ Sale said. ‘‘And if something happens, it happens, and if not — all smiles.

“I’ll pitch as long as they give me a jersey. It’s something I’ve done my whole life, so I might as well do it till someone tells me not to.’’


Twitter: @CST­_soxvan

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