No longer concerned with striking people out, Chris Sale has enjoyed one of the best starts in baseball history.
Looking to become the first major leaguer in eight years to open with nine straight winning starts, Sale tries to help the Chicago White Sox avoid a fifth consecutive defeat in Thursday night's series finale against the visiting Houston Astros.
"It's just different because his confidence level, I guess it's more of a relaxed confidence," manager Robin Ventura told MLB's official website. "He's a competitor. He's out there with that same fire, but he's also smarter about how he goes about it."
After fanning at least 200 in three straight seasons, including an AL-best 274 in 2015, Sale (8-0, 1.67 ERA) has struck out 53 and not punched out more than nine in any appearance this year.
Arizona's Brandon Webb was the last pitcher to win his first nine in 2008.
"(Sale is) a little more confident in pitching to contact," Ventura said. "Somebody wants to pop up the first pitch? He's giving them a chance to be able to do that. I don't think anybody really wants to get to two strikes with him because he can strike you out."
Sale struck out six without a walk and yielded a second-inning homer during his second complete game of 2016 in Friday's 7-1 victory at Yankee Stadium.
"Right now, he's able to pitch to contact and conserve that," Ventura said about Sale, whose 59 1/3 innings pitched rank among the most in the majors.
"He can reach back and get it any time, but he's not doing it all the time because we are scoring some runs for him and playing defense behind him. It gives him more confidence to last longer in the games."
Sale, who can become the first White Sox pitcher since Eddie Cicotte in 1919 to win his first nine starts, has allowed two earned runs, fanned 47 and walked four over 32-plus innings while going 3-1 against Houston (17-24).
These Astros, however, will try to win three in a row for the first time and hand the White Sox (24-16) their first sweep of 2016. Jose Altuve had three hits with two RBIs in Wednesday's 5-3 victory for Houston, which recorded back-to-back road wins for the first time to open this three-game set.
"Records are cumulative," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "Ours isn't pretty or where we want it to be right now, but that doesn't mean we're not a good team. I'll take our team against any of these guys.
"I do believe we are playing better baseball."
Altuve is 18 for 41 with 10 runs scored and seven RBIs in 10 games. He's batting .357 in 14 at-bats against Sale.
Suburban Chicago native Collin McHugh (4-3, 5.58) won three straight starts before he allowed four runs, 10 hits and three walks in six innings of a 6-5, 11-inning loss at Boston on Saturday. The right-hander has an 8.74 ERA in three road starts.
His only previous appearance against the White Sox came two years ago this week.
Adam Eaton is hitless in three at-bats against McHugh, but is batting .375 in his last 12 games.