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In welcome change, Danks gets fresh start

Following two injury-plagued campaigns, pitcher healthy entering camp

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There first was a laugh, but not a guffaw from the gut as if John Danks just heard something extraordinarily funny.

More of a slightly uneasy, "You had to go there, didn't you?" reaction to the question asked of him Saturday morning at Camelback Ranch.

A slight shake of the head and then a sigh representative of a bad history followed.

Needless to say, the last two seasons of baseball have not been anything the White Sox left-hander cares to remember.

"I don't think I can put that in words," Danks said.

Danks agreed to a five-year, $65 million extension with the White Sox prior to the 2012 season, and it has not exactly been smooth sailing since he did. He struggled with a 5.70 ERA over nine starts in 2012 before basically being shut down after a start at Wrigley Field on May 19 of that year.

Season-ending arthroscopic shoulder surgery came the next Aug. 6, followed by rehab. It was a process extending into Danks' 2013 season, which featured a 4-14 record, 4.75 ERA and 28 homers allowed over 138 1/3 innings.

With his velocity down to 89.3 mph in 2013 -- compared with 91.6 in his last fully healthy season of 2011, per FanGraphs -- it was often said that Danks learned more about pure pitching over these 22 starts last season. For an intense competitor who first could not pitch in '12 and then could not finish off opponents in '13, that learning process was hard to take.

"I don't know if that was pitching; that was kind of throw it and look out," Danks said with a laugh of his '13 comeback. "There was a lot of doubt at times. There was a lot of frustration at times. I hope I never have to go through another shoulder injury. It isn't fun, but it's part of the game.

"Obviously there wasn't super-high expectations, and I understood it was going to take some time to get back. But I think I got all that behind me, and hopefully we don't have to talk about shoulder surgery anymore."

Based solely on Danks' comments made during Saturday's interview sessions, with White Sox pitchers and catchers reporting, he seems like a different pitcher, and for the better.

His offseason was a normal one, aside from his marrying country performer Ashley Monroe. The focus was on getting ready for the season, as opposed to getting ready for the season while rehabbing his shoulder.

There is no doubt for Danks that he will be part of the White Sox rotation when the team breaks camp March 28, barring something unexpected. The 28-year-old southpaw even went as far as to say that he expected people to see more "vintage John Danks" when he is on the mound.

What exactly constitutes John Danks in his vintage state? Well, he has never been a pure stuff sort of starter who will simply fire pitches by the opposition. But he has posted two seasons of at least 200 innings pitched, three seasons with an ERA below 3.80 and three seasons with a bWar above 5.0.

Most importantly, Danks feels good. Ask him in which ways he feels better than last year, and he will answer pretty much in every way possible.

"I'm stronger, not having to force things quite as much," Danks said. "The ball is coming out of my hand night and day better than it was last year and hopefully it will continue to improve. But I feel good about things and confident. I told [White Sox head athletic trainer] Herm [Schneider] that I feel like I'm 18 again."

"It was a fun time watching him go out there and pitch," rotation mate Chris Sale said of Danks in '13. "I know that the end result wasn't exactly how he wanted, but at the same time, coming back from surgery like that as quickly as he did, it's tough. So this year, I think he's going to be 100 percent ready to go, and we'll see what he's got."

Sale and Jose Quintana sit in front of Danks in the White Sox rotation, but Danks' return to normalcy arguably becomes a more important factor in the White Sox push to respectability as a team. Danks appears ready for the challenge.

The White Sox certainly liked what they saw from Danks during a Saturday side session, but that is only the start. Danks understands plenty of road needs to be traveled to turn the last two forgettable years into a distant memory.

"You want him to be back to what he was before he got hurt," White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. "Watching him today, throwing free and easy, and physically I think he just looks better -- how he's throwing and delivery and probably his mindset of being another year away from where the surgery was. He's a big part of what we have to go forward with. You're confident and hopeful about that."

"We're not exactly setting lineups on one day of sidelines or making roster moves at this time, but it was a good day," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "I think that John, given where he is and his rehabilitation and recovery, has a far, far greater chance of returning to that form we saw from him for many years than repeating what we saw last year."

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

Chicago White Sox, John Danks