Cooper sends message to his starters

Cooper sends message to starters

TUCSON, Ariz. -- When Don Cooper met with his four veteran starting pitchers as promised on Monday morning, he didn't need to say much to get his point across.

The White Sox pitching coach wants Mark Buehrle, Jose Contreras, Jon Garland and Javier Vazquez to approach the rest of their Spring Training work as if it were a trip to the mound during the regular season. That theory holds true even if the games are being played in front of small crowds during Cactus League action or at 9 a.m. on the back Minor League fields at the Kino Sports Complex during "B" games.

"We talked about our approach, and I think they understood everything," said Cooper, prior to the Padres' 10-8 victory over the White Sox on Monday at Tucson Electric Park. "They're not dopes. They're smart guys.

"And I think they're honest with themselves. The approach -- as far as being aggressive, dictate the count, work inside -- that got across. The bottom line is the coaches can get frustrated, too. We had to say it, and I think they got it."

Monday's meeting was more of an informal get-together out on one of the practice fields, as opposed to a "sit down and yell time," according to Cooper. The talk was precipitated by Vazquez's weak start during a Sunday "B" game against Arizona, in which the rotation's projected fourth starter yielded hits to 10 of the first 15 opposing batters he faced.

Cooper pointed out how the approach for Buehrle and Contreras has not been bad this spring, and Garland's problems stem from the right-hander trying to battle through a second straight Spring Training with shoulder tightness. Garland threw a side session on Sunday and underwent a deep-tissue massage on his right shoulder, which helped break up the deep knot hampering him.

All four of these starters have their spots in the rotation locked down, but they are being outpitched in Arizona by young hurlers such as Gavin Floyd and John Danks. These same two prospects are fighting for Major League existence, at least in 2007, which helps explain the difference in spring attitudes. Once a veteran works on baseball's biggest stages, it's hard to have the same intensity during basic exhibition contests.

"It's hard coming out here, doing a 'B' game, you don't have fans, even though you want to go out and compete and do your best," Garland said. "People don't understand how tough it is.

"At 9:30 in the morning, you're rolling out there, you have nothing behind it, no intensity, you just have nothing there -- regardless of what you try to tell yourself, what you try to make it. You have to do the best you can.

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"You realize how close you are to the season, and what you need to do, what needs to be accomplished," Garland added. "It definitely helps when you pick up the intensity."

Garland noted that Cooper's speech basically was the same message he delivers every spring as the regular season fast approaches. Some of the spring numbers currently are downright scary, with Garland, Vazquez and Buehrle all featuring ERAs over 11.00. The lowest opponents' average against belongs to Buehrle at .385.

As Garland and countless others have pointed out earlier this spring, you can't win a regular-season game during February or March. So, if numbers don't matter during spring, then what factors really become important in the six weeks leading up to the regular-season opener?

"First thing first, you've got to be healthy," Garland said. "You've got to make sure your body is ready. You have to be in shape, be ready to go. The intensity comes once you step out on that field and 30,000 fans are screaming and yelling, and you know it's the real deal."

"That's what makes Spring Training so hard," catcher A.J. Pierzynski added. "There's really nothing to play for, except getting mentally focused and being ready to go out there every day. It's more of a mental test than a physical test."

Contreras, who entered Monday's effort with a 6.00 ERA through two previous starts, responded like the staff ace to Cooper's comments. The right-hander gave up two runs on four hits over 4 2/3 innings, striking out five, and gave himself one more outing before reaching 100 percent preparedness for the season.

Wednesday's game in Tucson features Garland back on the mound against the Brewers, with Buehrle throwing in a Minor League game somewhere in Tucson during Thursday's off-day. Vazquez, who bounced back to retire eight of the final nine hitters he faced Sunday, is on target to start Friday's spring rivalry contest against the Cubs.

Maybe a sold-out crowd at Tucson Electric Park will help Vazquez find that regular-season buzz spoken of by Garland. Regardless of the atmosphere, Cooper expects a steely focus from the pitchers making up one of the White Sox most important elements for 2007 success.

"The starters have a big responsibility, and we have to have them ready for that responsibility," Cooper said. "The more I do this, the more I realize that it's all in the preparation. The games take care of themselves if you're preparing correctly.

"You can't hold anyone responsible for stuff unless you give them the information. But once you give them the information, you can hold them responsible. Now they've got the information."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.