The long road to mental recovery   

Updated: May 18, 2007, 1:28 PM ET

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We've all returned from injuries. A sore elbow from trying to impress our dates by breaking 90 mph (OK, 80) on the speed pitch. A broken foot from not listening to the center fielder call you off on a fly ball. An ACL tear from taking the dance floor and trying those Cossack squat-kick moves after drinking a bottle of vodka with a Guinness-and-absinthe chaser at a wedding reception.

Off Base
And we all know the feelings of anxiety and hesitancy when we test those injuries. Has the swelling gone down? Does it still hurt? Does it hurt when I do this? How about if I bend it all the way back like this? Is it all right to work out now? Can I walk on it? Can I run on it? Can I run hard? Is that an ink stain on my stomach, a new mole or the beginning of basal cell carcinoma? Does it still burn when I urinate?

Now imagine being a young pitcher whose livelihood depends on the health of an arm that starts hurting one day. Think about the weight on your mind when you're the top young pitcher in the majors and you're about to step on the mound again, wondering whether your future holds dozens and dozens of victories and tens of millions of dollars or repeated trips to the orthopedic surgeon and a spot with Carl Pavano in the "Whatever Happened To?" section of the newspaper.

"I worried," Felix Hernandez said after coming off the disabled list Tuesday night. "When I was warming up in the bullpen, I was thinking about it. In the first inning I was thinking about it. I was thinking too much. I told myself, 'Throw. Just throw.'"

And so he did, and Seattle let out a sigh of relief large enough it's surprising the Weather Channel didn't dispatch a video crew to record the wind gust. In his first start since going on the disabled list last month with a sore elbow, Hernandez allowed three runs, seven hits, walked three, struck out five and reached his pitch limit (75-80) four outs short of qualifying for the eventual 11-3 victory over the Angels. He rushed at times and missed the strike zone. He was rusty from a month off. But the most important thing is that after throwing his mid-90s smoke and nasty breaking balls, he did not clutch his arm in pain when he left the mound. Nor did he after the game. In fact, the only people feeling pain were the fans across Seattle who crossed their fingers so tightly city chiropractors will be booked solid for the rest of the season.

"Am I relieved? I wouldn't say relieved, no, because I expected him to be healthy," manager Mike Hargrove said. "I felt good about it. I wasn't 100 percent certain he would be fine but I expected it."

"I feel happy that I'm back," Hernandez said. "That's what I wanted -- just to be back."

Which is not to say that all this still won't be in the back of minds until Hernandez gets in enough starts to reassure everyone that his arm is indeed healthy. Seattle realizes how important Felix is to the team, both this season and the next four before he files for free agency and signs with the Red Sox or Yankees.

Or as Ichiro told reporters, having Hernandez back gives "the opposition major mental damage."

"It was good that he was able to let go of the ball and throw. He was loose out there," said Seattle starter Miguel Batista. "That's what you look for. Is he going to be scared of getting hurt again or is he going to let it go.

"What a lot of young players have to learn is the difference between soreness and pain. Soreness and tightness goes away, and pain will, too, if you stop and get it treated. He's learning how to be smart enough to catch an injury early before it gets worse."

Tuesday's start went well enough but it will be like this every time Felix starts for at least a month. Seattle fans will cross their fingers, hold their breath, toss salt over their shoulder, knock on wood, click their heels together three times, rub rabbit's feet, say 10 rosaries, wear garlic cloves and perform every other possible superstitious ritual to assure that his arm remains strong and true.

And in between innings, they will stretch their own arms, rotate them in their shoulder sockets and wonder whether it's still too soon to come back from the rotator cuff they tore trying to show their co-workers how to throw a gyroball with a Magic 8-Ball in the office lunchroom.

BOXSCORE LINE OF THE WEEK
Minnesota's Jesse Crain had an interesting line -- 2/3 IP, 4 H, 6 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 K -- in the Twins' 15-7 loss to Cleveland on Tuesday, but we prefer last Wednesday's matchup between 44-year-old Jamie Moyer and 43-year-old Randy Johnson which produced these lines:

Moyer (W, 4-2) 7 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 4 K

And:

Johnson 6 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 9 K

With the pitchers' combined age of 88 years and 48 days, this was not only the "oldest" game started by two left-handers in baseball history (beating an April game between Johnson and David Wells), it marked the most time elapsed between meetings for two pitchers -- according to Elias, Moyer and Johnson had last pitched against each other 17 years and 230 days earlier. Johnson didn't get the win, but he did strike out nine, including the game's first six batters.

"I may have been the old Randy for the first six innings," Johnson told reporters after the game. "Then I just got old."

TELL YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP
With interleague play starting up, let us once again point out the inherent unfairness in the schedule. Because of the "rivalry" games (yeah, that Seattle-San Diego rivalry is pretty fierce), teams play significantly different schedules than their division counterparts. For instance, Atlanta plays six games against its "rival," the Red Sox, plus three games each against the Minnesota, Detroit and Cleveland. Philadelphia, meanwhile, doesn't play Boston and gets three games against the Royals. This not only results in unbalanced schedules within divisions but even more unbalanced schedules within leagues. And that's a worse situation because teams compete with teams in other divisions for the wild-card spot. As Chipper Jones told reporters this week. "Is [interleague play] fun? Yeah. It's fun playing in new cities. It's fun playing in front of new crowds, it's fun playing new teams. What's not fun is when they're all [against] contenders and your competition doesn't have to play the same competition you do." He's right. Baseball used to maintain the integrity of the schedule but no more. It's to the point some powerful teams almost get to pick and choose opponents while the others have to accept what they're given. … Here's a Web site to check out: LetRickeyPlay.com. After reading last week's Off-Base column on Rickey Henderson's never-ending desire to play in the majors (he is, after all, younger than Julio Franco), Marshall Hays started the site with the goal of getting Rickey back with a team. The site includes a petition you can sign, which Hays points out, is a damn sight more important than the petition seeking to pardon Paris Hilton. Also, if rotisserie baseball isn't enough for you, there's FantasyMoguls.com where you can build a fantasy league around movies and their weekend grosses and reviews. … The players association is refusing to release private medical documents to George Mitchell's steroid investigation, leaving it up to the individual players. This is the right stance. If a player wants to release the information, that's his decision but the investigation has no right to demand private medical information. … Shades of Al Newman. Minnesota outfielder/DH Jason Tyner not only has no home runs in nearly 1,200 career major at-bats, he had only two in more than 3,000 minor league at-bats. …

INFIELD CHATTER
Top 10 Signs A Baseball Player Is Too Old:

10. Gets winded putting on his socks
9. Hard slide into second triggers Life Alert pendant
8. While playing outfield, yells at teammates to get the hell off his lawn
7. When buying performance-enhancing drugs, gets the AARP discount
6. Claims he killed President McKinley with a line drive
5. Often begins sentences, "As Shoeless Joe Jackson once told me …"
4. He's almost as old as the hot dogs -- seriously, have you ever eaten one of those things?
3. Lost part of his career fighting in World War I
2. During interviews, he thanks the Lord and the makers of Super PoliGrip
1. When he's in the on-deck circle, asks bat boy, "What did I come in here for?"
-- David Letterman

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is at jimcaple.net, with more installments of "24 College Avenue." His new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans" is on sale now.


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