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With Kerry Wood’s exit fresh, Jake Peavy knows recovery, reinvention

Jake Peavy (above) Kerry Wood both wore whiz-kid label then were reduced by injuries. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

Jake Peavy (above) and Kerry Wood both wore the whiz-kid label, then were reduced by injuries. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 3, 2012 9:28AM

Admiration was at the forefront of a jostling crowd of emotions Jake Peavy dealt with as he watched Kerry Wood walk off a major-league pitcher’s mound for the final time last week. Wood’s ill-tempered right shoulder finally said ‘‘enough’’ after 14 seasons, 1,380 innings and way too many rehab starts, simulated games and towel drills, and he retired at 34.

‘‘I have tremendous respect for Kerry Wood and what he accomplished in his career, especially coming back from all those injuries,’’ Peavy said. ‘‘He reinvented himself and went to the bullpen because he wanted to keep playing. How many guys would do that?’’

Not teammate Chris Sale, but that’s a good thing. Closing, wherein every pitch is high stress, might be the worst possible assignment for a big-talent 23-year-old with a fickle left elbow.

Intimations of his own mortality also crossed Peavy’s mind as he watched an emotional Wrigley Field crowd salute a longtime favorite. Peavy and Wood are former National League contemporaries who have traveled similar paths.

A major-leaguer at 20, Wood became a Chicago sensation when he struck out 20 Houston Astros in his fifth major-league start, a performance so spectacular and surreal it skewed our expectations beyond reason. The sad truth is we’ll never know how good Wood might have been.

He threw a baseball with audacious power and skill, but it’s as if he weren’t meant to — this year’s trip to the disabled list was Wood’s 16th over 14 big-league seasons. Health issues always seemed to override his talent. Wood won 80 games in a Cubs uniform, same as Ken Holtzman and 12 fewer than Bill Hands, and never more than 14 in a season.

You’d swear it was more, that it should have been more.

Peavy was a big-leaguer at 21 and a Cy Young Award winner at 26, so dominant and still young enough that he seemed worth the four prospects the White Sox surrendered to take him and his $52 million contract off the San Diego Padres’ hands in 2009.

But Peavy was hurt then, and he has been hurt for much of his time in Chicago. If his injuries weren’t as frequent as Wood’s, they were just as serious, most notably a detached latissimus dorsi muscle that drove him from the mound in agony while he was pitching against the Los Angeles Angels at U.S. Cellular Field on July 6, 2010.

‘‘I was scared,’’ Peavy conceded. ‘‘This muscle that’s normally at the back of my shoulder felt like it was down at my side. I knew it was bad.’’

In layman’s terms, a complete tear occurred in the tendon connecting one of the big, power-providing muscles at the back of the shoulder with the humerus. Muscle torn loose from bone. Try throwing with major-league velocity after that little setback.

Dr. Anthony Romeo performed a revolutionary reattachment procedure but warned Peavy that recovery was uncertain and that rehabilitation would require a year. Peavy was back on the mound in 10 months, displaying the same flinty resolve that brought Wood back so many times.

‘‘We’re wired like that. We’re ballplayers, we’re competitors. It’s what we do, and it’s all we know,’’ Peavy said.

‘‘There are times when you’re rehabbing, you might have a bad day or a setback and you wonder if it’s worth it, but if you want to play badly enough, you fight through it and you keep going.’’

Chicago hasn’t seen much of the nasty, heat-flinging dominator who was 58-33 with a 2.97 ERA for the Padres from 2004 to 2007, the Cy Young winner by unanimous decision in ’07. Peavy has tried to will himself and talk himself into being that guy again, but baseball is what have you done for me lately. Words that don’t match deeds often are dismissed with a skeptical roll of the eyes, even well-intentioned ones.

This year has been a trip back in time. Peavy took a 5-1 record and a 2.39 ERA into his start Saturday against the Cleveland Indians. Though the Tribe reached him for seven runs, the Sox backed him with 14, so Peavy is 6-1. Even if he never revisits the Peavy of 2007, he can live with it.

“It’s not even in the back of my mind,” Peavy said. “When I go out there, I might wish I had the stuff I had in 2007, but I can’t worry about it. I have to find a way to get hitters out. That’s my job. I’m fortunate and blessed to still be doing it.”

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