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Long-awaited return to hill 'all good' for Danks

On mend from shoulder surgery, White Sox lefty encouraged by his two-plus innings

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Before John Danks took the mound for his Cactus League debut Monday, before he gave up a long first-inning home run to Joaquin Arias on a 1-2 hanging changeup, Jake Peavy presented the media with the only postgame question that should be brought to the left-hander's attention.

"How do you feel?" said a smiling Peavy. "That's the most important question, really the only question that I could imagine being asked."

Danks made his first trip to the mound since a four-inning rehab start for Triple-A Charlotte on June 12 in Columbus, Ohio. It was his first appearance against Major League hitters since he hurled 6 1/3 scoreless innings on May 19 at Wrigley Field.

And it was his official test drive after Aug. 6 arthroscopic surgery on his left shoulder. In between, there was extensive rehab work and three live batting-practice sessions and two bullpen sessions once he arrived in Arizona.

Aside from Arias' homer, Danks gave up Kensuke Tanaka's single to lead off the third as the culmination of an eight-pitch at-bat. He didn't strike out or walk anyone, throwing 27 of his 35 pitches for strikes over two-plus innings and hitting between 85 to 89 mph.

But let's get to the most important inquiry of the afternoon: How did Danks feel?

"All good," Danks said with a broad smile. "The test will be tomorrow and the next day. So far, so good.

"You know, I mean, as I was going back out there for the second and third innings, I didn't feel like I was losing anything. If anything, it was starting to come to me a little bit. It has been a positive day."

Monday's focus was fastball and changeup command, with Danks throwing only a handful of offspeed pitches. He threw three changeups to Arias in that first at-bat and joked that if he would have offered up the changeup to Arias he threw in the next at-bat to Cole Gillespie, he might have emerged unscathed from this outing.

Again, the results weren't nearly as crucial as the process for Danks, who really took his most significant step in the recovery. The next goal to achieve, according to Danks, will come long before his first projected big league start.

"This is the first hurdle," Danks said. "Obviously the couple of weeks leading up to this was important. But the first game, get that out of the way and we really start focusing on the pitching side of things. Just excited to get back out there and see what kind of improvements I can make from now.

"I was very happy with my control, the fact that I was able to throw strikes and make them put the ball in play. I kind of lucked out a little bit, for the most part they were swinging. But in the deeper counts, I was able to stay aggressive and make them hit my pitch."

Brandon Belt stood as the Giants' only everyday player in the lineup at Camelback Ranch. Arias, Brett Pill and Hector Sanchez are bench options who got the call.

Facing the Giants was the easy part for the 27-year-old hurler, who was limited to nine starts in 2012. On Monday, as Tom Petty once sang, the waiting was the hardest part.

"I'll tell you what, the clock stopped at 11 [a.m.]," said Danks, drawing a laugh from the media. "I felt like I kept looking at the clock, waiting for the game to start. But you know I was glad to get back out there.

"Once I got on the field and started warming up, it felt a little more in my comfort zone. Certainly before the game some butterflies, and like I said just anxiety really to get the game started."

Gordon Beckham offered up Danks a little on-field encouragement before throwing his first pitch to Gary Brown, a tradition the two have followed during the regular season in which Beckham is the last word prior to Danks pitching. Beckham basically told Danks that the team had his back and that the pitcher should be himself.

If Danks is in fact closer to the successful version of himself, where he won at least 12 games, threw at least 195 innings and made at least 32 starts every season from 2008-2010, then the White Sox chances to contend receive a major boost. Peavy, who traveled his own road back after 2010 season-ending surgery to reattach a lat muscle, also warned there could be setbacks along the way.

"We understand in here that it's not the end of the world if something was to happen," Peavy said. "It's just a tiny roadblock in getting back to doing what he did.

"It's amazing that John has had smooth sailing. It has been amazing in watching how good he looks this spring. He's my catch partner and watching the ball come out of his hand on a daily basis has been fun for me. I'm excited for the opportunity that we have in getting him back."

Next up for Danks is a Saturday start at Salt River Fields against Arizona. The main question on that afternoon still would be how Danks feels. It might take another two starts before asking if he's ready for the regular season.

"Obviously it's going to take some time for his mechanics and his arm to come back the way it was," Peavy said. "We all understand that five, six starts down the road in Spring Training he'll be a whole lot better to go out and mix and match his pitches and get outs."

"My main focus was throwing strikes, and I was able to do that," Danks said. "I couldn't have really asked for more."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin.

Chicago White Sox, John Danks