PEORIA, Ariz. -- He hadn't pitched in a game in 18 months, needed to battle back from major shoulder surgery and now is fighting to show he's still the same guy who deserved to be drafted with the second overall pick in 2011. So who was the first guy Danny Hultzen faced in his long-awaited return for the Mariners?
That would be Rockies star Troy Tulowitzki, who led off the fourth inning Wednesday for Colorado as Hultzen strode in from the bullpen for his initial Cactus League appearance.
"That was crazy," acknowledged Hultzen, who spiked two changeups in the dirt in his first three pitches before walking Tulowitzki.
But the 25-year-old southpaw settled in, getting a double-play grounder by catcher Wilin Rosario and a groundout by Ben Paulsen to polish off a 12-pitch frame that served as his springboard to a fresh start in what has been a frustrating beginning to his Mariners career.
"It was exciting," Hultzen said. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time. It's been a really long road. To be able to come back and pitch again is incredible. There were times I doubted if I could ever come back again. I'm through that now and really, really happy I can play baseball again."
The Mariners have no expectations for Hultzen, ranked No. 13 among the club's Top 20 Prospects, according to MLB.com, this season, wanting only for him to build up his arm again in the Minor Leagues and put himself in position to compete for a rotation berth in 2016. But manager Lloyd McClendon was happy with the first impression in Wednesday's 4-1 loss.
"I was very pleased," McClendon said. "I was nervous for him, but he did a nice job. His velocity was 93-95. He threw a couple good breaking balls and bounced a few of them, but probably some jitters."
Hultzen said he could have pitched longer, but understands the cautious approach. And this game was just about stepping back on the mound and getting rid of the butterflies.
"Other than those two changeups, I threw everything for strikes," he said. "And I came back and threw a changeup for a strike. Just the emotions of it, I was trying to get through. I wasn't thinking too much, just kind of throwing it and seeing what happened. After those first couple, I was able to calm down and focus on the actual pitches."
This was step one of the trek back for the former Virginia standout, and he pronounced it an unqualified success.
"I felt great," he said. "My arm felt great. I was just super excited to get out there again. I'm really happy right now."