ST. PETERSBURG -- On March 31, 1998, a day after Chris Sale's ninth birthday, his uncle brought him to Tropicana Field for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' first game.
He pitched here once as a reliever in 2011, but his first Major League start in his home state, in the ballpark of the club he grew up rooting for, was far more special.
Taking the mound before "quite a few" of his family and friends, Sale finished one short of Jack Harshman's club record with 15 strikeouts Monday afternoon as the White Sox pushed their winning streak to six with a 2-1 victory over the Rays.
"I don't know what it was like facing Randy Johnson when he was young," said Rays outfielder Ben Zobrist. "But this kid, he's going to be great, and I think he has a real bright future as a starter."
The 23-year-old left-hander from nearby Lakeland racked up the most punchouts by a White Sox pitcher since Harshman sat down 16 against Boston on July 25, 1954. He also topped Pedro Martinez's 1999 record (14) for the most strikeouts at Tropicana Field. But Sale didn't have any idea about the records he was breaking and approaching.
"That's something I'm not really worried about," said Sale, who threw 80 of his 115 pitches for strikes and tied his previous career high of 11 strikeouts after five innings. "You go out there and you try not to focus on all the external stuff that might get in the way of you doing your job.
"It was fun coming here back to Florida when your friends and family are here to watch you and support you. It was a special day. It was awesome."
Sale's dazzling Memorial Day performance was backed by Adam Dunn's sixth-inning homer, his 16th. Dunn hammered a two-run shot to the back wall of Tropicana Field, a no-doubter off Rays lefty Matt Moore.
Moore was impressive in his own right, striking out 10 over seven innings. The highly-touted prospect pitched up to his potential against a lineup that had scored at least nine runs in four consecutive games. Paul Konerko struck out twice and grounded into a double play but managed to extend his hitting streak to 14 games with a ninth-inning single. Konerko went 1-for-4 and saw his Major League-leading average fall to .395.
The 25 combined strikeouts from Sale and Moore were the most since Sept. 30, 2009, when Florida's Ricky Nolasco and Atlanta's Javier Vazquez totaled 25, and the most in an American League game since Pedro Martinez and Steve Trachsel fanned 28 at Fenway Park on May 6, 2000.
But Sale got the better of Moore, becoming the youngest pitcher to record 15 strikeouts since Mark Prior fanned 16 with the Cubs in 2003. The last time a pitcher had 15-plus strikeouts within his first 10 starts -- Monday was Sale's ninth -- was Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout gem in his fifth Major League start.
"He's special," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said of Sale. "I think that's what you're seeing is him being able to kind of manage the game and know when to go for the strikeout and get ahead and all those things. Really, you look at both of them with Moore, too. You're probably looking at two kids that are going to match up quite often the next few years."
Sale was dominant from the start. He struck out three of the four batters he faced in the first inning, then two every inning until the sixth. His slider was essentially unhittable, and the Rays continued to flail after it, mostly to no avail. He gave up one run in the fourth when Zobrist singled, stole second and scored on Jose Lobaton's single to left field, his first Major League RBI.
Sale struggled to keep his emotions in check when Zobrist was safe at second after being caught on a pickoff move, later calling himself "just an absolute idiot" for losing his cool. He said he wants to avoid letting the situation get the better of him in the future, but he settled in just fine after that.
By the time he was done carving up the Rays, Sale had recorded 11 of his 15 punchouts on sliders and picked up 11 swinging strikeouts. He struck out the side twice and rang up at least two batters in six of his seven innings.
"That was kind of the slider he had last year when he'd come out of the 'pen," catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "He'd kind of been struggling with it a little bit this year. The numbers don't reflect that, but he hasn't had as sharp of a slider the last couple starts as he did today. It was nice to have all the weapons going."
As well as he was pitching, was there any thought of giving Sale a chance to tie Harshman's record and go for strikeout No. 16?
"He's probably going to have a chance at it someday," Ventura said.