GOODYEAR, Ariz. — When Randy Wolf stepped onto the mound at Goodyear Park on Sunday morning, there was a brief pause to enjoy the moment.
Sure, it was just a Cactus League game, and he was only going to pitch two innings. But to Wolf, it was one step closer to being back where he believes he belongs — a major-league starting rotation.
Wolf was one of the few positives in the Mariners’ 6-3 loss to the Cleveland Indians. He threw two scoreless innings, giving up one hit, issuing a walk and striking out a batter.
“He threw the ball extremely well,” manager Lloyd McClendon said.
It’s been more than a year — Sept. 22, 2012 — since he last threw a meaningful pitch off a mound.
“Well, 17 months, but I’m not counting,” he quipped.
In those 17 months, Wolf underwent the second ulnar collateral ligament-replacement surgery of his career and changed his entire mindset about conditioning and preparation — not to mention moving one step closer to 40, turning 37 last June 11.
“Mid to upper 30s,” he said. “I’m still closer to 35.”
A veteran of 14 big-league seasons, Wolf has experienced success, played in the postseason and made plenty of money, so why undergo a second Tommy John surgery — his first was in 2005 — and work so hard to come back?
Because he wanted to leave the game on his terms. And what he felt Sunday offered justification for his decision.
“It was weird being out there, definitely,” he said. “It’s been a long time. Spring-training games you really don’t have that many nerves, but when you haven’t been out there for 17 months, you realize you miss the game a lot. To be out there and be healthy, not that I ever took it for granted before, but you really appreciate being out there in a spring-training game, even if it is your first start on March 2.”
Wolf’s health has become increasingly more important to the Mariners as the health of pitchers around him has deteriorated. With Hisashi Iwakuma (strained finger tendon) and Taijuan Walker (shoulder inflammation) likely to start the season on the disabled list, a spot in the rotation could be his if he can pitch well and stay healthy.
“I felt like with everybody being healthy, I still had an opportunity,” Wolf said “I don’t want to gain anything by someone else’s misfortune.”
Perhaps not, but it still could be a factor in his making the club. So could a change in his training regimen.
“It was borderline (obsessive compulsive disorder),” he said. “I trained like I never trained before. It was the first time I’ve ever had a personal trainer.”
He did full body movements, jumped, with quick bursts of exercise for three minutes to get his heart rate ratcheted up, followed by a minute of rest.
“At the end of the three minutes, you are at the point where you are going to throw up and you do 15 to 20 cycles of those,” he said. “It’s not fun at all. But I definitely, within the first month or two, started seeing and feeling a change.”
Wolf decided to change his diet to go with the workouts. To get the results, he realized he couldn’t eat like a 20-year-old.
“Sometimes age is somewhat of a choice, you can’t cheat it, but you have to do more in certain ways and less in certain ways,” he said. “You can’t go and eat Taco Bell all the time and expect your metabolism is going to burn it off. More than any time in my life, I’ve really watched what I eat.
“I feel that when I’m healthy, I’m an average to an above-average major-league pitcher,” he said. “Obviously, when I’m not healthy, I’ve been horrible. I really feel with the way I’ve prepared over the last 15 months, that if this ligament holds up, I can pitch in the big leagues and really help a team.”