Welcome to the comeback

PHOENIX – Technically it still was Monday morning in Maryvale (though the sun was in mid-afternoon form) and Eric Gagne, off elbow and back surgeries, was on the mound and pitching well into the 90s.

That would be to Cole Gillespie, currently wearing No. 96 for the Milwaukee Brewers.

Followed by Brad Nelson, wearing No. 98.

The fastball – that was closer to 88, 89.

It's the nature of spring training's "B" games, the temperatures and uniform numbers running a little hotter than the fastballs.

And that's about where Gagne stands, now more than two years removed from those three glorious seasons in Los Angeles, where his furry mug and blazing fastball became iconic figures in a city of icons.

On a one-year contract with the Texas Rangers that came with daily appointments with the team trainer and a strength coach, Gagne pitched to his first three batters of spring Monday.

He trotted in from the left-field bullpen for the fourth inning not to the sounds of full-throated hysteria and "Welcome to the Jungle" but of rustling papers and the slap-slap-slap of flip-flops on concrete steps.

If there were 100 people in the stands at Maryvale Baseball Park, 20 percent were scouts who had arrived early for a Kevin Millwood-David Bush matchup but stayed to take a long, hard look at Gagne.

Since they had last seen him – really since anyone had last seen him – Gagne had endured a couple more breakdowns, a few doomed attempts to pitch through pain and a lot more appointments with Dr. Frank Jobe.

He threw 11 pitches to the bottom of the Brewers' numerical roster and then said, "It's the best I've felt in the last two years." It's the kind of thing he's said for a while now, usually in the hours before something really terrible happens.

Knees, elbows and backs generally weren't built for Gagne's chosen pursuit or high-exertion delivery, and Gagne got big and good at a time when a lot of ballplayers were getting unusually big and good. He has denied those sorts of insinuations and worked diligently to push through all of his various aches and scars, often citing his responsibility to teammates and organization as sources of deep frustration.

Indeed, Gagne's terminal flaw in L.A. was his unwillingness to divulge even the minor irritations before they became major and Jobe actually began sharpening his scalpel.

Though he hadn't thrown a pitch since June 6, had thrown just 32 since June 12, 2005, and had the Dodgers decline a $12 million option, Gagne had a relatively productive free agency. His agent, Scott Boras, had expected to have to showcase Gagne in a few late-winter workouts, but hard offers came fast and Gagne chose the Rangers – and $6 million, with games-finished incentives to $10 million – over a handful of others.

Which put him Monday in a uniform not affiliated with the Dodgers for the first time since 1995.

A full beard has filled in around his trademark goatee. His hair, like his uniform, was floppy and unkempt. Somehow, his cap already was filthy and thread worn. On this hot morning, he wore a tight sleeve on his right arm. His left was bare. His number is 38, all that remains from those Dodgers days, the number behind those 152 saves over three years, those 84 in a row, those fist pumps, that mania.

He would start over as a Ranger with a fastball that brought no one to his feet. Gagne threw it with some effort, a muffled "grrch" carrying through the first rows of the ballpark. Gillespie took it for a strike.

Through three Brewers batters – the third one announced by Rangers manager Ron Washington as the "last hitter," no matter how it turned out – Gagne topped out at 90. He threw a couple changeups, three curveballs and none of the sliders he's been toying with early in camp.

Gagne walked the third batter, received the ball back and stood on the mound as his teammates headed to the dugout.

"That's it?" he asked.

When Washington nodded, Gagne joined them, flexing his fingers as if recreating the curveballs that had missed the strike zone.

In the stands, a scout also nodded.

"You can tell he's healthy," he said. "How much is going to come out of his arm, I don't know."

Rangers general manager Jon Daniels smiled and said, "Yeah, it was good. Free and easy."

Gagne sounded optimistic. He has been given the ninth inning, despite Akinori Otsuka's breakout last season and despite a schedule that appears to give him little room for even a minor setback. And he expects to be standing out there in the early days of April.

"I was nervous," he said. "Felt like my first day in the big leagues. But, it was good. … The elbow felt good and the back felt good.

"It just feels weird to be out there again. It's been almost two years."

Then it was back to Rangers camp, back to the work that had gotten him here, onto a mound again, in someone's plans again.

There, he'd find a message left by a teammate, written on athletic tape, stretched across his locker.

In black ink, it read: "Gone to Maryvale – B game."