It was the first loss for Sale in 10 road starts this season and occurred after a brilliant stretch in which Sale had compiled a 1.54 ERA over his previous six starts that had lots of people mentioning his name in conjunction with the Cy Young Award.
"It shocks you when that happens," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "It just shows he's human. He'll bounce back. It's just that tonight wasn't his night."
The White Sox had a 1-0 lead in the third courtesy of Adam Eaton's sacrifice fly. Given Sale's reputation, Royals fans must have been nervously wondering if Sale would make that run hold up all evening long. But Alcides Escobar and white-hot Nori Aoki singled with one out in the third and Lorenzo Cain needed just one big swing to ruin Sale's night and add some fuel to the Royals' playoff charge.
Sale worked Cain for an 0-2 count, but then left a slow breaking ball up in the zone. Cain, who had just four homers in 435 at-bats, responded with a towering drive that cleared the left-field fence for a three-run homer. Before his night was over, Sale also surrendered a homer to Escobar.
"You go into that game knowing if you're going to get him, you better get him early," Royals manager Ned Yost said.
Sale said he felt fine warming up. But once he took the mound, it was a struggle.
"Not exactly what the doctor ordered," Sale said. "You hang a breaking ball [to Cain] and leave a fastball out over the plate [to Escobar]. I wasn't good with my command tonight at all."
The long ball by Cain marked the first time Sale has ever given up a homer on an 0-2 pitch in his Major League career.
"I could tell he wasn't super sharp," White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers said of Sale.
Flowers did feel that Sale had a good breaking ball after seeing him strike out Billy Butler with that pitch in the second. The idea was for Sale to go down and in with a breaking ball to Cain, but the ball stayed up.
"That was the plan, it just didn't get there," Flowers said.
Royals starter Yordano Ventura didn't have much trouble with the White Sox hitters, allowing just three hits in his seven innings. What Ventura did to the White Sox is what Sale usually does to the opposition.
Sale's earned run average went from an American League-leading 1.99 to a second-place 2.20 (trailing Seattle's Felix Hernandez -- 2.14) with Wednesday's outing. Current plans call for him to make one more start in Detroit, but there's room on the calendar for Sale to make two starts if White Sox officials are so inclined.
"I'd like to see this thing through," said Sale, who fell to 12-4. "But ultimately that's not my decision. Given that I missed some time early, I want to be able to show that I can sprint across the finish line."
When they next face the Royals in a four-game set at U.S. Cellular Field next week to end the regular season, the White Sox will be looking for some answers on how to retire Aoki. Looking much like Ichiro Suzuki in his prime with a slap-and-dash style of hitting, Aoki set a Royals record by getting 11 hits in the three-game series. Aoki reached base 13 times in the series, which is the most in a three-game series since Kevin Kouzmanoff reached 13 times for San Diego in 2009.
Aoki had three hits off Sale, who is usually a nightmare for lefty hitters.
"He's fast, left-handed and gets out of the box quick," Sale said. "Watching him this series, he really put on a hitting clinic. What a series he had."