Wolf's long journey back is almost complete
After two Tommy John surgeries, lefty in position to earn spot with Mariners
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Randy Wolf isn't acting like a man who is firmly on the Mariners' bubble right now, and there's good reason.
The left-hander is finishing camp on a Minor League contract with a decent chance of making the team after recovering from his second Tommy John surgery.
Not long ago, during Wolf's more than a year-long odyssey of rehab and recovery on the repaired left elbow, that seemed like a pipe dream.
"You really appreciate these moments," Wolf said on Tuesday night, after pitching the first four innings of what turned out to be a 5-5 tie against the Padres at Peoria Stadium. "I look back when I knew I was going to have another surgery, I thought this was possibly the end of my career. You don't know how you're going to feel in 12 to 15 months. I feel like I've worked very hard, but at the same time, I feel really lucky."
Sometimes good things happen to good people. With his future squarely on the line, Wolf allowed no runs, two hits, walked two and struck out three on Tuesday.
The red-headed veteran of the two surgeries and 14 big league seasons for six teams looked like his old self. At 37, Wolf's breaking pitches and fastball played nip and tuck with the corners of the plate. The Padres never had more than a single baserunner against him in any of those four innings.
Wolf didn't throw hard, but then again, he never threw hard. His pitches just had the necessary bite.
"I've always been an 88 mph to 91 guy," Wolf said. "I've never experienced a decrease in velocity. It's not like I've had to relearn how to pitch. Going into camp, I thought that if I showed I was healthy, that would be good. When I'm healthy, I may not be a superstar pitcher, but I can pitch in the big leagues."
That's why Tuesday night was a prove-it-to-himself outing, coming after the injury with the Orioles late in the 2012 season and a year as a man without a team, as Wolf rehabbed all of 2013, not knowing whether he was going to be able to make it back.
Or even get the chance.
"I feel like I'm at the light at the end of the tunnel," Wolf said. "I feel like I was in the tunnel in my first inning [of the spring]. I felt good. The fact that I was able to throw my second inning and every time out get stronger and stronger, I no longer feel like I'm on a recovery road. I feel like I'm getting ready for a season. That's a big mental thing to get ready and not feel like I'm rehabbing anymore. I've never been a March All-Star. Days like today are very encouraging."
Before the game, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik indicated that Wolf would probably need a few more of these kinds of outings if he's going to make the team.
Because of injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer the Mariners have openings in the starting rotation behind Felix Hernandez, Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton. The finger injury suffered by Iwakuma just before camped opened undoubtedly was one of the reasons why Seattle extended Wolf a non-guaranteed Minor League spot the very day pitchers and catchers officially reported.
Wolf had to fight through his own insecurities, and he is making the most of what he said at the time was probably his last shot.
"I feel like, obviously, this is my last shot, because if for some reason my elbow goes again, I'm not going to have surgery on it a third time," Wolf said. "I've had a long time to think about things, about how my career has gone and being appreciative for the time I've had in this game. Whatever goes on with my elbow now and moving forward is really icing on the cake."
Wolf's feel-good comeback is even more germane because it's happening at a time when a number of other pitchers are contemplating Tommy John surgery or are in the middle of the recovery process.
The Braves announced on Wednesday that Kris Medlen underwent the surgery for a second time. In recent years, Cory Luebke of the Padres, Brian Wilson of the Dodgers, Joakim Soria of the Rangers and Daniel Hudson of the Padres are among the pitchers who have each undergone the late Dr. Frank Jobe's landmark surgery twice. Oakland's Jarrod Parker will also miss this season after his second procedure.
Like Wolf, Wilson was in no-man's-land last year when he rehabbed on his own after leaving the Giants as a free agent at the end of the 2012 season. The Dodgers picked him up after watching a tryout and then re-signed him this winter.
Wolf was more than a year out from the surgery this past December when he threw a bullpen session near his home in the Los Angeles area that was open to scouts from any Major League team. There was interest, but he balked at signing as a non-roster player that early.
"I just thought too many things could happen between December and February," Wolf said. "I wanted to go to a team where I had a really good opportunity and a team that was genuinely inquiring about me. The Mariners were definitely in the conversation the most."
And now, here he is, on the bubble or on the cusp. There's the matter of signing a guaranteed big league contract, and the Mariners making room for him on the 40-man roster. But any way you want to put it, Wolf should feel good about the spring no matter what happens.
"Well, I'll feel a lot better if I'm pitching in a big league uniform," Wolf said.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.