Bullington finds road back rewarding

Bullington finds road back rewarding

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Pitching coach Jim Colborn knows better than anyone not to expect too much from a pitcher coming off Tommy John elbow surgery.

So, Colburn, a former Major Leaguer, watched with no great expectations on Monday afternoon during what was to be right-hander Bryan Bullington's return to pitching.

"There were doubts he'd ever pitch," Colborn said of Bullington. "So we were willing to accept anything. But, wouldn't you know it, he threw very well."

Colborn's evaluation was the consensus on Bullington, who threw 10 pitches in an outing that lasted one inning during an intrasquad game. He walked one batter and gave up no hits.

"I just threw all fastballs," he said. "I just tried to locate it a little bit."

Bullington did that well, aside from the five-pitch walk he yielded. Had he been even less effective, he still would have had reason to be satisfied. The 26-year-old Bullington had been on a long, arduous road from surgery to the mound again.

"It's the first live hitter that I've faced in 17 or 18 months," he said. "So it was good to get that out of the way."

Indeed it was.

Bullington is back on a path that, perhaps even this season, could find him where he's dreamed of being -- the Major Leagues. The expectations were that, as a No. 1 pick for the Pirates in 2002, he'd reach the big leagues quickly. He might have met those expectations, too, if not for his setback.

But how do pitchers avoid injuries? Is there a magic formula that allows some to last an entire career without a significant arm problem? Is it possible to predict that a young talent like Bullington would go under the surgeon's knife?

And, even more, is it possible to know how he'll recover from surgery?

As much as anything, Colborn said, the recovery can be mental. A pitcher can rehab for months, and once he returns to the mound, he can let worries about his arm prevent him from doing what he used to do: trust his stuff and not worry about his arm.

That's the hardest part of it, Colborn said. A pitcher can try to readjust his motion in hopes of not hurting the arm anew. But those changes can damage his mechanics, turning an effective pitcher into one who can't find the strike zone.

Repetition can keep the latter from happening, but only if a pitcher can find his old form. That's where the mental side of it comes into play.

"There's still a little lingering doubt in a pitcher's mind," Colborn said.

Colborn wasn't sure whether Bullington had doubted himself, because he hadn't pitched enough to have reason for doubt. Yet if his first outing suggests much, it's that Bullington is on the road to recovery.

The road might still contain a few obstacles, but Bullington hasn't let any of that block his path to recovery. He said he has no apprehensions about anything -- not after what he's been through since September 2005.

Bullington's throwing program in recent months kept those thoughts from creeping into his head, and as he sees things now, he's prepared himself for Opening Day. Or, better yet, his right arm is ready for it.

"I started the offseason preparing as if I was feeling healthy," Bullington said. "I just prepared as if it was a normal year. I've been able to stay on schedule, so I haven't had any setbacks or things like that."

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