CHICAGO - On a soggy Sunday afternoon, in a dogfight of a division race, Brandon McCarthy has finished serious business: cramming his iPod full of tunes off of the Chicago White Sox clubhouse laptop. So now he leans his lanky, 6-foot-7 frame against a locker partition shared with some guy named Frank Thomas. He is three days removed from going pitch-for-pitch with reigning American League Cy Young winner Johan Santana. Yet he is also a couple of months removed from schlepping his own bags, suffering cheap hotels and 10-hour bus rides with 30 other grown men. Somewhere between Cheyenne Mountain High School and the present, Brandon McCarthy, 22, became a star in the making. But the ever-diminishing division lead of the White Sox prevents him from recognizing it. “As much as you want it to feel like something special, I try and force it to not be,” McCarthy said. “I try and make it feel like you’re throwing (in the) bullpen or throwing in the backyard, trying to make it as small a deal as I can in my mind. That way it’s not overwhelming, it’s not too much. “Eventually, I’ll start to realize, holy ... what just happened?” What happened is a bit dizzying. Drafted out of Lamar Community College in 2002, Brandon Patrick McCarthy rapidly pitched his way through the White Sox organization. In 2004, the lean right-hander became a Next Big Thing, winning 17 games and leading the minors with 202 strikeouts. After some fits and starts this season — despite an impressive spring, he was up and down from the minors twice — he discovered a curveball and a change-up and thus a whole new level. Though bounced between the rotation and the bullpen, McCarthy has posted a 1.67 ERA in his past six appearances covering 37q innings. Tuesday, he lost for the first time since his callup, allowing three earned runs in a 3-2 loss at Detroit. “Once I saw him in the spring, he was already a big-league pitcher,” White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko said. “So it doesn’t surprise me that he’s doing well up here. I was surprised at any time that he got hit around in Triple-A, to be honest with you. Any time I heard he had a bad game in Triple-A, I said, ‘How did that happen?’” “Some guys are just born to pitch, to be successful,” said Minnesota Twins outfielder Jacque Jones, whose solo home run last Thursday provided the lone run off McCarthy. “He’s going to be good. Well, not gonna be — he is.” McCarthy strives for balance. After all, as White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen points out, a year ago he was a Double-A prospect, living in three apartments in three cities. He graded harshly on tips. He still remembers that morning in 2003, when his Pioneer League team had a most unpleasant welcome after an overnight bus ride. “Our rooms weren’t ready,” McCarthy recalled. “We all had to go across the street to a Perkins or something, and we’re all just half falling asleep at tables because nobody wants to be there. Everybody just wants to sleep. It took like two hours to get in the rooms. It was not fun.” He still calls a hotel home — but in downtown Chicago. He can take cabs. He lets bellmen carry his bags — though he still doesn’t understand why — and everyone gets tipped. While he gets used to that, he has to get big-league hitters out. One of his teammates advised him the majors are just Triple-A with more people watching; McCarthy says the off-field minutia makes it more complicated than that. So he strips each day and each start to the basics. “I come to the park, it doesn’t feel like we’re about to play a game in a race — it just feels like we’re about to play baseball, we’re about to go play catch,” McCarthy said. “I’d rather just focus on the little things, what I can do. It keeps everything smaller for me, so I don’t really get out of whack. “If I talk to my family, they’re not bringing a whole lot of things up. I go home every night, me and my girlfriend go and get something to eat, and we’re not talking about baseball.” That businesslike attitude — “The right way,” Konerko said — eased his transition into the clubhouse. It also soothed matters when Guillen yo-yo’d McCarthy between the rotation and the bullpen before the rookie earned a place in the rotation. He’s a chip-holder in a high-stakes game now, but McCarthy doesn’t want to think like it. So on this particular Sunday, with the rain letting up, he grabs a glove and heads out to the U.S. Cellular Field turf for — what else? — a game of catch. “Stuff just stays the same little things you’ve always been doing,” he said. “Just on a bigger stage, I guess.”
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