SAN BERNARDINO -- It had been just one day short of the 300-day mark since C.J. Wilson took the mound in a competitive game, and now in front of 2,399 fans, it was a new day of recovery.
Adrian Gonzalez, the home plate umpire, called a ball on the first pitch delivered from Wilson at 7:08pm and the game was officially underway. Wilson was pitching in a competitive game, against Padres' prospects playing with the High-A Lake Elsinore Storm.
"It was kinda crazy, I pitched in a real game," said Wilson. "First time since July last year, so just in that regard it was fairly new for me. I didn't get to throw in any Spring Training games or anything like that, so I had some fans out there cheering and stuff like that."
That first inning was the longest of the night for the Los Angeles Angels' starter, a 23-pitch inning where he saw two full counts, and went 0-2 on each of the first three batters. A leadoff double ended up turning into a run three batters later on a dying quail double that any Major Leaguer would have caught for the third out. Instead, Wilson settled for attaining all three outs by way of the strikeout.
"In the first inning I gave up a little ground ball hit, and then gave up a little flair and started thinking to myself, 'this isn't a very good start.' Then I got a couple strikeouts, and struck out the guy to get the fans some free cerveza and they're all happy about that, I think that set the tone right there, the fans were on my side after that."
The free - or cheaper - beer Wilson was referring to was Padres' prospect, Franmil Reyes, who the Inland Empire 66ers Front Office chose as the "Beer Batter" for the night, and beer prices went down if he struck out. A gleeful cheer came from the crowd when Reyes missed on an 88-MPH fastball, and "cerveza" became cheaper.
Wilson allowed three more base runners over the course of his four-plus innings, which gave him the ability to turn it into a real game in his own mind. As opposed to seeing the batters as minor league opponents, he was able to get out of real situations he'll expect to see at the Major League level.
"It's really great when you get to roll or dominate, but it clearly wasn't that tonight. I had to actually go out there and pitch because of how the stuff was playing at the time... I still feel like I have a long way to be the pitcher I want to be but I'm out there pitching and getting okay results here, so I just have to 'Billy Madison' my way through the system and do it that way."
Wilson was rehabbing a shoulder injury attained in the early stages of Spring Training, that has sidelined him since that event. In the prior season, Wilson was shut down at the end of July because of an elbow injury. Everything felt alright for the southpaw though, and the injuries can become a thing of the past.
"It was a little bit surprising today, because when I pitched in my sim game I felt like super rock star. Warming up, I felt like I'm gonna throw the hell out of the ball. Then today I was like, 'oh man,' maybe because it's a little cold, I didn't feel as coordinated with everything.
The final result may have looked to put Wilson in coordinates though, as he allowed the lone run in the first inning, and retired four of the 16 batters he faced by way of strikeout, three swinging. The three hits in his final 33 pitches (56 total for the night), were all singles, and he did not walk a batter, throwing 35 strikes in his work load.
Prior to the game, Wilson was ready for his first competitive outing in nearly a year. That was until an hour before the game, and the butterflies began to sink in. He rebounded from those emotions, but still felt he had plenty to do before gaining the feeling of being a Major Leaguer again.
"My main focus is getting physically ready to play in the big leagues again, and if tonight was the big leagues, 56 pitches in four plus innings isn't gonna be a quality start. I've gotta work up to the point of throwing 100 and bounce back. Do what I can to continue the path I'm on which is get my body in shape, my arm in shape and get more into it. Emotionally, kinda a little bit of a butterfly situation at about six o'clock today. Prior to that I was amped."
As for his stuff, everything was moving and was being thrown for strikes. From his four-seam fastball, to two-seam, to cutter, to slider, to changeup, it all helped him finish his outing with relative ease. Any concerns about velocity were thrown out the window, as his fastball sat primarily in the high 80's, ranging from 87 miles per hour to 89, touching 90 on one occasions.
"I hit 90? Damn, that's all you had to say. That's cool then. I'm where I need to be."
Wilson is eligible to come off the 60-Day Disabled List on June 2, which would give him the chance to pitch in one more rehab game before rejoining the Angels. It's likely he'll pitch one game in Triple-A for the Salt Lake Bees - likely Monday, May 30, to face competition closer to Major League talent.