Wolf hoping for midseason return

Wolf hoping to be back by midseason

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Sweat poured from Randy Wolf's clean-shaven face on Friday, evidence of another afternoon spent under the Florida sun.

Earlier that morning, the lefty, who's recovering from Tommy John surgery, tossed baseballs from 150 feet at the Carpenter Complex. Other pitchers worked out nearby, with the goal of preparing for the season.

Wolf is preparing, too, for a midseason return.

"I know I feel great right now," Wolf said after his latest step toward recovery. "I want to keep feeling strong. The way to do this is by doing it right. The thing I need to do is not rush it."

Not rushing has been understandably tough for Wolf, who'd rather be the Opening Day starter than hoping for a mid- to late-July return, which would be just more than a year after the surgery.

Not usually a superstitious sort, Wolf knocked on his wooden locker often, each time he mentioned feeling well. He's felt especially good over the past month.

"I can feel [the ball] coming out of my fingers, and there's no problem to get it going where it's going," Wolf said. "I'm definitely not throwing at full effort, but I feel I could."

This was in stark contrast to the first time he reintroduced himself to a baseball over the winter.

"That was weird," he said. "Thirty percent of the throws were in the ground. I was only throwing 45 feet. It was almost embarrassing. Even if I wasn't hurt, when I'd pick up a ball after every offseason, I'd be like, 'Have I ever thrown a baseball before?' It just feels weird. Having a brand-new arm makes it feel that much more weird. But within a week, I was feeling more coordinated."

Coordinated and encouraged, Wolf is continuing his steady plan without deviation. He's talked to enough pitchers -- including four teammates -- to understand that it's going to be a while.

Rheal Cormier knows this, too, having had the surgery in 1997, when he was Wolf's age. Wolf has reached the pivotal point of a pitcher's recovery, and Cormier cautions that Wolf shouldn't get ahead of himself.

"At every level, it's going to be a little different," Cormier said. "You need time to heal. After 12 months, he'll be ready. If he pitches this year in games, next year he'll be over the hump. It's a matter of him getting to where he can pitch in games. You have to start over and build all the muscles back. I'm sure he wants to get back as soon as possible, but he has to look at the big picture and know he can pitch for another seven or eight years."

Added Jon Lieber, who had the surgery in 2002: "I think he's gone through the toughest part, the first four months. I think he's on his way back. I don't really see him having any big setbacks."

While Lieber and Cormier are optimistic, Wolf remains cautious. He's knows it's not a foregone conclusion that he'll make 12 second-half starts and be of much help this season. In a less rosy world, Wolf could miss the entire 2006 season. After all, Cormier took nearly two years, while Tom Gordon and Lieber needed 18 months.

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Manager Charlie Manuel is prepared to move on without his lone left-handed starter.

"I think Wolfie will help us, but at the same time, I don't want any setbacks," Manuel said. "I want him ready and comfortable. It's pretty hard to count on him, because we don't know when he's coming back."

He might not like it, but Wolf understands the bigger picture.

"Every step of the way [in rehab], I said to myself, 'Don't be stupid,'" Wolf said. "Is it worth it to get out there a month early when I want to pitch 10 more years? I only want to go through this once in my life. This is not a surgery and rehab that is fun, by any means. I know what this year has been like, and I don't want to go through it again."

Assuming he can pitch this season, Wolf will be looking for a gig next season. He'll earn $9 million in the final year of a four-year, $22.5 million deal. Despite growing up and rooting for the Dodgers, Wolf wouldn't mind staying on the East Coast.

"This is the organization I grew up in," he said. "This is the organization I always wanted to win with. It killed me last year. I know I could have helped enough to get that one game. I think about that all the time. I hope I come back this year feeling strong. The last two months of the season are going to be important, and the starts that I have could push us over the edge. That's what keeps me going. I want to be there to help at the end."

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