Peavy pitching for future

After solid outing in season debut, he can set up himself and Sox for something good

ARLINGTON, Texas – In front of a packed stadium that made the adrenaline surge more than before most games, Robin Ventura watched Jake Peavy strut to the mound determined to control his baseball destiny.

This was another Saturday 10 years ago – June 22, 2002.

Peavy was a 21-year-old Padres phenom making his major-league debut as 60,021 fans left Qualcomm Stadium convinced Peavy's future was brighter than San Diego's blue skies after he surrendered three hits over six innings in a 1-0 loss. Ventura was the Yankees third baseman who went 0-for-2 against the pitcher who took the ball for the White Sox at Rangers Ballpark with the same dogged approach evident his first start a decade ago.

For Ventura, even more curiosity surrounded Peavy's outing Saturday than the day an unknown but undaunted rookie called up from Double-A shut down the vaunted Yankees on national television.

"There's a lot at stake,'' Ventura said before Peavy showed moxie giving up three runs over six innings in a 4-3 victory over the Rangers.

Those stakes only increase with every start. If Peavy can stay healthy enough to resemble a Cy Young Award winner again he can help a pennant contender in 2012 – but likely not the Sox. If Peavy can't return to form due to either injury or ineffectiveness, good luck finding a trade partner for a pitcher whose contract includes a $22 million option for 2013 the rebuilding Sox would be foolish to exercise.

Success for Peavy benefits both sides, even if they wind up on different ones by Aug. 31. In a best-case scenario, Peavy replaces Mark Buehrle as the ace and the Sox contend for an AL wild-card spot. In a scenario better for the Sox long-term, Peavy avoids the disabled list and inconsistency and GM Ken Williams trades him for prospects.

Cynically, Peavy's tortured Sox tenure makes me wonder which hard-throwing Chicago right-hander will make more starts in 2012: Jake Peavy or Jay Cutler?

History urges skepticism. Not since 2008 has Peavy started more than 18 games. Last year the Sox shut Peavy down three weeks early. But for the first time since surgery on a detached latissimus dorsi muscle near his right shoulder in July 2010, Peavy claims nothing ails him.

We'll see. By now I trust Peavy the diagnostician less than Peavy the pitcher. It will take at least 25 starts to confirm Dr. Peavy's latest prognosis. Consider Saturday a healthy start.

Whether it was managing emotions beforehand or regaining composure after a third-inning balk, Day 1 tested Peavy's poise — which can be harder to control than his slider. As promised, Peavy competed on a night he sensed warming up he lacked his best stuff. Still Peavy reached back for 94 mph fastballs and fooled Josh Hamilton on a crafty 85 mph curve. Experience helped Peavy pitch more than throw for 94 encouraging pitches.

"It was a grind,'' Peavy said. "I got better as the game went on.''

By design and necessity, Peavy relied more on off-speed stuff and location than the heat that once defined him. Can a guy nibble at corners of the plate and still pitch with an edge? Can Peavy be a thinking man's pitcher and still let his heart rule his head the way he is wired?

It bodes well that Peavy credited a mechanical adjustment for settling down enough to retire nine of the last 10 hitters he faced. Yet as much as I love Peavy's passion, I question how compatible his new reality is with the old Jake. One day the mentality Peavy can't change might make him a great closer. Can it still make him a quality starter at 30?

"I take all that positive energy and use it to focus and make pitches,'' Peavy said.

I asked Ventura how challenging it was to keep Peavy's intensity from hurting more than helping.

"I like it,'' Ventura said. "That's part of what's made him successful. He needs to be able to go out there and use it and take advantage of it.''

Easier said than done for catcher Tyler Flowers, who acknowledged the importance of "keeping Jake's emotions in check.''

"We're trying to keep the contract and pressure of being traded out of it,'' Flowers said. "Block that out and just pitch. His last couple spring-training starts he looked more like the guy we used to watch in San Diego all those years ago.''

As Peavy reminded Ventura and everybody else Saturday, that guy can make an impact.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh
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