GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The night before his first professional game in 19 months resulted in one of the most memorable moments of Tyler Skaggs' life.
"I think everything works out for a reason, my man," Skaggs said. "It really does. I honestly believe that."
Skaggs -- a passionate Lakers fan and consumer of all things basketball -- met one of his idols, Kobe Bryant, on Wednesday. The Angels' starter joined a contingent that included teammates Mike Trout, Jered Weaver and Garrett Richards and the Padres' James Shields and Matt Kemp at US Airways Center, for Bryant's final game against the Phoenix Suns.
They sat courtside, then went into the visitors' locker room and conversed with Bryant while he received his postgame treatment. Bryant, winding down the 20th and final season of a Hall of Fame NBA career, talked about the importance of winning, about pushing your teammates and about never cutting corners when rehabbing an injury.
Bryant was addressing the entire group, but Skaggs could swear he was talking to him directly.
The pitcher was "taken aback."
"It fired me up," Skaggs said. "It's a bucket-list thing for me, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I'm going to tell my kids that I met Kobe."
Skaggs slept just fine that night. When he awoke, it was Thursday, the day of his first game since August 2014 Tommy John surgery. Skaggs threw two innings, the seventh and the eighth, against the White Sox at Camelback Ranch, striking out two batters and giving up only an unearned run in a 6-5 Angels win.
It was a moment Skaggs pictured himself in countless times during the 602 days that separated him from his surgery. And afterward, he said, "It went better than my expectations, to be real with you."
The nerves were his only real obstacle.
They didn't kick in until Skaggs boarded the bus for the 40-minute drive from Tempe to Glendale. But they intensified once he began to warm up in the bullpen, grew even more profound as he stepped onto the field. And when he finally set his feet on the rubber and the first hitter dug in, Skaggs could feel his hands shaking.
"It was just one of those things," he said. "It's your first game, no matter what. It was my first time back on the mound in a real game. It's Spring Training, but it's still a real game."
Skaggs immediately thought back to his last game, in Baltimore on July 31, 2014, which saw him hold the Orioles hitless for 4 2/3 innings before his ulnar collateral ligament snapped. He extracted only the positives.
"You just think about how you felt," Skaggs said. "As a pitcher, you see how the ball comes out of your hand, because you're watching. You can feel it. I just felt like I got right back into the arm slot that I was pitching in, and everything felt pretty sharp."
Skaggs threw his fastball 90-91 mph, mixed in an impressive curveball and flashed some changeups that made him "proud."
The 24-year-old left-hander's first handful of pitches missed high, pretty much in line with his emotions. Skaggs induced a flyout to right field by Tyler Saladino and then got Alex Avila to line out to left field on the very next pitch. Watching the ball get put in play began to calm Skaggs. The next batter, Austin Jackson, struck out swinging on a biting curveball in the dirt, culminating a 1-2-3 seventh inning.
In the eighth, Skaggs threw 17 of his 18 pitches for strikes. The first batter, Carlos Sanchez, reached on a throwing error by shortstop Gregorio Petit, but could've easily been called out at first. The fourth batter, Gerson Montilla, knocked Sanchez in with a single to right field.
In between, Skaggs jammed Travis Ishikawa for a popout and got Jason Coats to ground out. His last batter would be his good friend, Matt Davidson, who shares an agent, Ryan Hamill of CAA. Skaggs texted Davidson prior to the game and told him how good his curveball was feeling.
Then he struck him out with three straight fastballs.
"Blew the doors off him," Skaggs said, smiling. "I know I got in his head."
Skaggs began Spring Training by throwing bullpen sessions every other day, then backed himself off because the pace was a little too intense. He had waited this long, he felt, so why not hold off just a little bit longer?
Skaggs worked himself into facing hitters by March 14, though they were instructed not to swing then. He threw a two-inning simulated game on Saturday, impressed on Thursday and will pitch in another Cactus League game by Tuesday, as long as he doesn't wake up uncommonly sore. Skaggs should be ready for Major League competition before the end of April.
The rehab process is finally, officially, over.
"To be real with you, a lot of days it felt [rough]," Skaggs said. "I just had to push through it. But at the same time, today I felt great. It's one of those things where I'm just really happy with myself. I put in the hard work, I put in the time, I didn't cut any corners. I think the proof is in the pudding today. I'm really hyped about it."