Harrison hopes to follow path paved by fellow Ranger

Pitcher attempting to return after undergoing untested surgery like Lewis

Harrison hopes to follow path paved by fellow Ranger

ARLINGTON -- Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison has a potential guide to help lead him in his recovery from an untested back operation.

Fellow pitcher Colby Lewis was able to overcome daunting odds in returning to the Rangers' rotation last season after missing 18 months because of flexor tendon and hip operations. The hip replacement surgery was the procedure that had people wondering if Lewis would be able to pitch again.

Lewis' sterling start

Harrison faces similar doubts after undergoing lumbar spinal disk fusion surgery on June 3. As with Lewis, there is no clear history of anybody pitching at the Major League level after undergoing the procedure.

"I only talked to him a little bit," Lewis said. "I just told him that everybody is telling you that you can't do it. Why not be the first guy? Don't let this be anything that's going to be big. Prove everybody wrong."

That is Harrison's intention. He has had multiple setbacks because of his back problems and has made just six starts over the past two seasons. Retirement has crossed Harrison's mind more than once, but he still has three years and at least $41 million left on his contract.

So Harrison is willing to give it one more try. But one more serious setback could force him to shut it down for good.

"It would put doubt in my head as far as getting back," Harrison said. "But right now, I'm focused on the day-to-day goals and getting back as soon as possible, and if things don't feel good once I get off the mound, it's obviously not worth it. Health and quality of life is more important than throwing a baseball."

Harrison is throwing again. Right now, he is playing catch from 75 feet and taking it slow. Harrison won't go off a mound until March at the earliest, and he won't like be ready to pitch in a Major League game until at least June -- that is, if everything goes well; there are many tests to pass before he reaches that point.

"What we are trying to do with him is be a little bit conservative," assistant general manager Thad Levine said. "We know we're going into Spring Training with him a little bit behind. That's intentional, because our hope is that once he comes back, he never has another setback. And I think we feel, collectively -- including Matt -- that we have one more shot at this, and we want to make sure we handle it as professionally and with as much care as we possibly can."

Lewis had to summon similar patience last year. When he arrived in camp, Lewis had not pitched in a Major League game since July 18, 2012. He had undergone flexor tendon surgery in July 27, 2012, and -- after a derailed comeback -- hip replacement surgery on Aug. 22, 2013.

Lewis came to camp believing he was ready to compete for a spot in the rotation. That proved not to be the case, and he started the season in the Minors. But the Rangers' injury problems did not allow Lewis to stay there long.

Out of necessity, Lewis was back in the rotation by April 14. He went 6-6 with a 6.54 ERA in 16 starts before the All-Star break. It wasn't until the second half that Lewis started pitching effectively again. In 13 starts, he was 4-8 but with a 3.86 ERA, and that convinced the Rangers to re-sign him to a one-year contract.

Rangers retain righty Lewis

"I probably should have spent another six weeks in Triple-A," Lewis said. "But it was a situation where everybody kind of got hurt and got the opportunity to come up earlier."

Lewis goes into this Spring Training locked in with a spot in the rotation. The Rangers hope that with a normal offseason behind him and the surgery further in the rearview mirror, he will perhaps even be as good as he was in 2010-11, when they went to two World Series.

"Last year, it was all rehabbing trying to get the hip right," Lewis said. "I still do all those exercises, but it doesn't feel weak. Leading up to the season, I would really get fatigued after exercises. Now I can go about my normal offseason like I did in 2010-11. I feel good. I feel ready to go."

Harrison and Lewis had totally different physical problems. One success story does not lead to another. But it does give Harrison hope that it can be done.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.