Commentary

Fear not a factor in Peavy's return

White Sox starter determined to recover from unprecedented injury

Updated: March 4, 2011, 10:39 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Some say fear is the No. 1 hurdle. That gnawing doubt the first time an athlete returns to his sport under game conditions that the knee, the elbow, the latissimus dorsi muscle will hold up under surgical repair and respond the way it always had.

For Jake Peavy on Friday, the question was unprecedented, as no other high-profile athlete had had the muscle behind the back of the shoulder tear completely away from the bone as Peavy had this past July 6.

[+] EnlargeJake Peavy
Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesJake Peavy pitched in a game Friday for the first time since July 6.
But fear? The injury, as serious as it was, also was captivating in a gruesome sort of way. Slowed down, you can see the entire anatomy of the shoulder in action -- or, in his case, utter distress -- as the muscle responsible for deceleration fails, leaving nothing to stop Peavy's right arm from whipping completely around and hitting him in the back.

Peavy himself was so fascinated by it that he brought a video of the surgery to the clubhouse just weeks later and invited a gaggle of reporters by his locker to watch. He said Friday that he gave it to ESPN for airing.

"A lot of people go, 'How's your shoulder?' My shoulder is fine," Peavy said. "I have a great rotator cuff, a great labrum; I just did something very freaky compensating for some other parts that weren't as strong as they needed to be. But right now, I feel as healthy as I've ever been."

Friday's spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels was a "mental hurdle," Peavy said, as he returned to the mound for the first time in a game setting, throwing 26 pitches and 16 strikes, striking out two batters, and walking one. But fearful? No. He threw around 90 to 91 mph, once reaching 92 to Torii Hunter, which resulted in a grounder up the middle and inning-ending double play.

"Last time I stood on a mound and let a ball go to [Angels hitter] Mike Napoli, it wasn't pretty and it wasn't a pretty feeling I had," Peavy said. "And to get out there and do that [today], there has to be trust in what those doctors are telling you. … At the same time, I felt like I was healthy. I feel like I'm completely normal. I think I showed that today."

Of course, Saturday morning is the real test. That's when Peavy opens his eyes, gets out of bed and feels for any abnormal soreness. He said he is prepared for setbacks, which doctors warned are inevitable. And there are those who would rather see Peavy return to the Sox starting lineup in May or June (rather than April 10, which is what he is hoping) in hopes of avoiding a serious one.

It is understandable that Sox fans fear Peavy's competitiveness could get in the way of common sense, which ultimately could get in the way of completing one of baseball's more formidable starting rotations -- 10 innings into spring training without allowing a hit.

But Peavy is no dummy. He also knows his body. And that's probably as much as anyone can ask.

"The night it happened, I remember going in and I knew something was bad wrong with me," he said. "I knew something was worse wrong than even some of the doctors and trainers did. When I first got in there, I knew something had come loose and wasn't anywhere close to the right spot. I had something in my back that wasn't supposed to be behind there, and that was a feeling that only I could tell those guys.

"I remember [Sox GM] Kenny [Williams] in there going, 'a couple weeks,' and I'm going, 'Kenny, something's wrong with me.'"

This is uncharted territory. "If that injury happened when I was playing, he's done," Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said.

Kerry Wood and Tom "Flash" Gordon had tears of their lat muscles, but there was no road map for this.

"I wish I would have had Tommy John or some other surgery where there was some history," Peavy said of the dreaded but repairable elbow injury. "I worked out with [Nationals pitcher] Stephen Strasburg in the winter and … he could tell you what he's going to be doing two months from now, his throwing program. We had to sit down and come up with our own throwing and rehab programs."

As we know now, Peavy sailed through both, and he's on schedule to take the mound again Wednesday, promising to back off is there is anything abnormal at all. At the same time, Friday was a demonstration of the marvels of medical science, dedicated rehab and a positive attitude.

Peavy threw everything but his changeup Friday and said he didn't "air anything out," but in the low 90s, he's very close. Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said they're more concerned with how he feels than his velocity or location.

"I've been on the mound, not going that speed, but probably more times than most guys in spring training," Peavy said. "I'm comfortable now. When you start going at [full] speed, things can get out of whack a little bit, but mechanically, I was pretty sound. We made big league hitters swing and miss a couple times, and when that happens, it's always a good sign. It's just a good starting point. I feel very blessed that today went the way it did."

Guillen said they will treat Peavy normally to a point.

"In my mind, he's our fifth starter," Guillen said. "But we have Plan B just in case. We have to be 100 percent this kid is right. We would not want to jeopardize something we don't have to. But I have to go by what he's saying."

Friday was a good day to trust him. And to trust our eyes.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.