Both Sale and Quintana head into the biggest September of their baseball lives coming off their worst career starts. As their innings mount higher than ever, so do concerns on the South Side. Their earned-run averages can take the hit, but what about their confidence? Are the lefties' minds as tired as their arms look?
Paging pitching Dr. Cooper …
"With the young guys, if they trip and fall we pick them up,'' Cooper said Thursday. "Our key phrase is, 'Stay the course and keep working.' We know there will be times young guys fail. But everybody fails. We keep it really positive and that's the biggest thing. Robin (Ventura) has been the head of that. He's the guy who has changed the culture. We don't get flustered.''
Why start now? If this Sox team has earned anything besides its three-game lead over the Tigers in the American League Central, it is the benefit of the doubt. The streaky Sox followed getting swept by the Royals with a six-game winning streak. In July, five straight losses preceded five straight victories.
I don't expect losing three out of four to the Orioles will carry over into the biggest series of the season that Jake Peavy opens Friday night at Comerica Park. I expect the Sox to compete, salvage at least a game on the strength of pitching and return home Monday still atop the division.
This isn't the 2011 White Sox, swept in Detroit over Labor Day weekend amid distractions former manager Ozzie Guillen created with ill-timed contract demands. This 2012 version under Ventura is a relaxed, resilient bunch with an uncanny knack of making each series independent of the rest.
"If we have to start changing things now we're not worth a crap anyway,'' Cooper said. "We're the same each day and that's refreshing.''
Nobody in black feels more refreshed this season than Cooper. In perhaps his best job in a decade as Sox pitching coach, Cooper has coaxed a staff full of rookies and replacements into a group that, more than anything, will determine how the Sox fare the final 32 games.
"I've been rejuvenated by the new staff and enjoy the challenge of the young guys,'' Cooper said. "They're all young. They see compadres around them. It's comfortable. But we're not treating them like rookies.''
It can be as specific as suggesting Sale move to the third base side of the pitching rubber to jam right-handed hitters. Or it can be as general as building up Dylan Axelrod's confidence Wednesday before he limited the Orioles to one run in 71/3 innings. Whatever situation, whoever has the ball, Coop finds a way to cope.
Cooper has more fixer-uppers on his resume than Bob Vila. He lit up discussing one of the latest, Francisco Liriano, whose recent control issues have caused Cooper to tweak "a couple of delivery things.''
"With 'Frankie,' when things are going on, he wants to throw harder,'' Cooper explained. "Well, the answer is never harder or more velocity. The answer is more to the glove. He has shown once he gets on a roll, he's OK. But that transition is an act in progress. It doesn't happen immediately.''
Under Cooper's guidance, it usually happens. Since 2003, Sox pitchers lead the majors in quality starts with 867. Since 2005, the Sox have the third-lowest ERA in the American League at 4.17. Even in this year of the rookie pitcher for the Sox, after losing Mark Buehrle to free agency and John Danks to injury, only four AL starting staffs have lower ERAs.
"Overrated,'' general manager Ken Williams kidded recently about the pitching coach he has retained through two managerial changes. "(Seriously), what it shows is Coop's method works.''
Complicated, it isn't. The approach Cooper drills into Sox pitchers revolves around throwing first-pitch strikes, repeating delivery mechanics and heeding advice any realtor can appreciate: location, location, location. What Cooper seeks from the shoulders up can be summed up best in why he considered Quintana's six-inning, six-run victory June 29 at Yankee Stadium his most impressive.
"I remember talking to Robin after that and saying, I liked this kid before, but I'm liking him more now because of how he battled,'' Cooper said. "A lot of guys would have caved.''
A lot of people expect the Sox to cave by the end of baseball's cruelest month. I can see why. But I have seen Sox pitchers surprise me too often this season to agree.