8:30 PM CDT, April 6, 2012
ARLINGTON, Texas — The torch has been passed, and John Danks did not get burned.
Given the assignment he's facing, a fire suit like the ones NASCAR drivers wear, would seem to have been in order Friday. Danks wore his usual No. 50 road jersey and got along fine.
Maybe Danks has known what he has been talking about. The White Sox will have a No. 1 starter in 2012, even if Mark Buehrle followed the money to South Beach.
"You're going to miss somebody when you're as close as Mark and I are,'' Danks said. "(But) he hasn't thrown a pitch for me yet. You miss him as a buddy, as a close friend, but out on the mound there's no difference (without him). I'm just trying to make pitches, to help us win.''
Danks threw 78 pitches against the Rangers in the opener — only the Sox's second since 2002 started by someone other than Buehrle — and afterward only one of them bothered him.
He hung a curveball to Ian Kinsler, once his rookie ball teammate with the Spokane Indians, and the two-time All-Star blasted it into the left-field seats of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington at mach force. It helped give his team to a 3-2 victory before a crowd of 49,085, many of whom came early and tailgated like Texas was playing TCU.
Club President Nolan Ryan views this victory as the first step on a road back to the World Series. The realistic expectations aren't as high for the visitors from Chicago, in large measure because of the suspect lineup that struck out 13 times against Colby Lewis and one of baseball's best bullpens, but they will feel better if Danks consistently pitches like he did against the Rangers.
"It stings a little bit to be on the losing end,'' said Danks, a Texas native who was a first-round pick of the Rangers before being traded for Brandon McCarthy. "If I can be this good or better over the course of the season, it will be a good season.''
Ken Williams, Rick Hahn and the other White Sox evaluators are banking on him. They gave him a five-year, $65-million contract extension at the same time they were allowing Buehrle (161 career victories and almost 2,500 innings pitched) to leave without a contract offer.
Danks, who turns 27 this month, is six years younger than Buehrle and still regularly runs his fastball into the low-90s, even if his 4.33 ERA last season belies that. A payroll bloated with the contracts of Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn left room for only one pitcher earning $13 million per year, and the White Sox locked up Danks rather than chasing Buehrle on the free-agent market.
"Nothing personal, but we have to play,'' Williams said last weekend. "We always have a three-year plan, and part of that plan was to have John Danks for when we don't have Mark Buehrle. … We were also able to move Chris Sale out of the bullpen and put him in the rotation. Will Sale be as consistent as Buehrle has been over the years? We don't know. We are projecting he can be. He has all the equipment to do that.
"But we know there's no replacing Mark Buehrle in the clubhouse, on the bus, on an airplane. Nobody's going to take his place around here."
Danks says he is feeling no more weight or responsibility than ever before. It's a good sign that he wasn't trying to throw a zillion miles per hour against Josh Hamilton & Co., as he had a large party of family and friends in the stands and was facing his original team.
Kinsler's home run was one of six hits off Danks. He struck out six and walked none — a feat he usually manages about once a month. The guy rarely beats himself, and against the Rangers he would have left with a 2-2 tie if third baseman Brent Morel had not failed to force the lead runner on Adrian Beltre's sixth-inning grounder.
In a lot of ways, Danks was Buehrle-esque in the start of a new era.
"Danks has been here for awhile,'' Paul Konerko said. "He doesn't pitch like Mark, but he's like Mark in his makeup. You feel good with him on the mound.''
But what about watching Buehrle in bright orange?
"It was really different seeing him (pitching for the Marlins on TV Thursday), in that uniform,'' Konerko said. "It was hard. I didn't care for that too much.''
It's a shame the White Sox couldn't clone Buehrle. They aren't asking Danks to be just like him, but they won't mind if he comes close.
Copyright © 2014 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC