CHICAGO -- Chris Sale was piling up strikeouts at such a prodigious pace last summer that there came a point when he was clearly drawing a bead on the White Sox record.
I asked him if he knew who held the record.
"It's probably that guy Ed Walsh,'' Sale answered. "He's the guy you always hear about around here, the last guy to do this, the last guy to do that.''
Smart guy, Sale.
Walsh, who pitched for the South Siders from 1904 through '16, did have the record. It was 269, in the year that the Hall of Famer won 40. Sale broke the record in his final start of the season, fanning seven Tigers to run his total to 274.
Now he's attached himself to another of the great names in pitching history -- Sal "The Barber" Maglie.'
By throwing a four-hitter to beat the Astros, 2-1, on Thursday night at U.S. Cellular Field, Sale ran his perfect record to 9-0 in nine starts, with a 1.58 ERA. He's the first pitcher to win his first nine starts with a sub-2.00 ERA since Maglie did it for Leo Durocher's New York Giants in 1952.
No one who witnessed the nine-strikeout, no-walk gem was especially surprised, including the guys he beat.
"He threw everything he wanted for strikes -- changeup, slider, fastball, sinker,'' said Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, who had a single in four trips to the plate. "No matter the count, he went out there and attacked the hitter. You've got to give him credit. For me, he's the best pitcher in the league right now.''
Watching Sale on a daily basis has been something of a revelation for Jimmy Rollins, the long-time National Leaguer now playing shortstop for the White Sox.
"He's pretty darn good,'' Rollins said. "Obviously what he's doing hasn't been done in an awful long time. It's special. He has a mission. He takes it on himself every time he takes the ball to go nine, and he's done a damn good job.''
The 27-year-old Sale has been an All-Star each of the last four seasons, earning a reputation for nastiness with his high-90s fastballs, wipeout slider and unfair changeup. But what makes his fast start especially impressive is that his goal this season -- as Rollins pointed out -- is to throw as many innings as possible.
He's been trying to replace strikeouts and long at-bats by trying to get hitters to make outs earlier in the count. He's been throwing an inning more per start this season than a year ago and needed only 107 pitches to throw his complete game against the Astros, which allowed the first-place White Sox to avoid a sweep in the three-game series.
In some ways, he's like Randy Johnson trying to become a little like Mark Buehrle. He loved that this game lasted only 2 hours, 11 minutes.
It was so quick in part because he threw only six pitches in the sixth inning -- all of them strikes and four of them put in play.
"That's what we're shooting for,'' Sale said. "When you trust the guys behind you, it gives you confidence to just throw it. My only focus is throwing strikes, throwing quality strikes.''
Sale struck out 103 hitters in 68 innings over one nine-start stretch last season. He routinely generated 20-plus swinging strikes per start in that run but was only 5-2 with two no-decisions, with the White Sox winning six of nine.
Nothing's wrong with those numbers, but he's bought into the line that you hear more often from hitters -- that a strikeout is only one out.
"It's not that I'm not trying to throw hard; I'm trying to throw smarter,'' Sale said. "I'm not coming out of my shoes. I'm still giving everything I've got, but it's under control. It's max effort, under control. Instead of 115 percent, it's 100 percent.''
Sale had 13 swinging strikes against the Astros, with only 14 of his 55 fastballs registering 95-plus. His average fastball was 93.7, almost two miles an hour slower than last season. He barely blinked when Evan Gattis lined a sinker for a solo home run in the eighth inning, costing him the shutout.
"It's as good stuff as we've seen all season,'' Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. "The numbers on the scoreboard will tell you (he's made an adjustment). He's not overthrowing. He's not throwing every fastball at 96-99, or whatever he used to be.''
A catcher in his playing days, Hinch has an appreciation for pitchers who understand how to make the most of their tools. That's what Sale was doing.
"There's a definite consistent approach to the changeup, to a breaking ball for strikes, not just a back-foot, wipeout slider,'' Hinch said. "He's evolved as a pitcher, understanding that if he wants to pitch late in games it depends on what he does early in games, throwing first-pitch strikes and inducing contact below the zone. He still has an easy way of dialing it up when late in a count or late in a game. You can tell he's making a conscious effort to be a pitcher more than just a dominant thrower.''
When Sale went out to the mound for the ninth inning, protecting a 2-1 lead, the crowd of 20,096 stood to cheer. He struck out Altuve to start the inning and rookie Tyler White to close out the victory.
It's not too early to wonder what the scene would be like if Sale matched up against the Cubs' Jake Arrieta in the City Series in late July.
"Watching him, he's as good as it gets right now,'' Sale said. "He's by far the best pitcher in baseball right now. I don't think there's even much of an argument about it.''
Arrieta will take a 7-0 record and 1.29 ERA into a Friday night start in San Francisco. And, yes, since someone mentioned it, Sale would love to face him with something on the line.
"To be the best, you have to beat the best,'' he said. "I think that would make for a great game. The rivalry is going to be a little bit more intense this year, and I think there's going to be a lot more energy in the ballparks when we're playing, for sure.''
He's got that right, like just about everything else.
Phil Rogers is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.