Aussie Southpaw Ahead of Schedule

Almost exactly one year ago, Seattle Mariners' left-hander Travis Blackley had surgery to repair two small tears on the labrum of his throwing shoulder.

The buzz about the Australian southpaw went from a sense of excitement in July, as then 21-year-old headed for the big-leagues for the first time as the Pacific Coast League's ERA leader, to the blue mood brought on by the news of the necessary, and career-threatening procedure.

The surgery was a success, but the rehab was another story. The track record of labrum surgery recipients isn't promising, but that wouldn't keep Blackley's confidence down. As if anything could.

Less than a week after going under the knife, the 2003 Texas League Pitcher of the Year professed his buoyancy.

"I feel good about things," he said. "I'll be back."

So here we are a calendar year later and after a year of rest, rehab and months of the desert life, Blackley's optimism reigns supreme as Spring Training 2006 is under way.

"I feel really good about where I'm at," said Blackley from his cell phone as he strolled around a Phoenix area mall with new Mariners' free agent signing Jason Dewey. "I've been throwing pens and long toss every day, and there hasn't been any pain."

Coming off of a long, well-deserved vacation back home to Australia with his family, Blackley went back to work, taking full advantage of the rest his arm, and his mental state sorely needed.

"I got tired of being here," said Blackley of his long stay in Peoria. "I needed the rest and I'm just ready to get going here."

While the organization has no plans to rush the 23-year-old, don't ask the competitor in question about what his timetable for a full return should be. Not unless you are prepared to hear the brutal truth. The belief of an athlete with more heart than most.

"I'm ready to go," said Blackley. "I'm right where I'd be had I not ever even had the surgery. I'm throwing pretty hard, not a full 100 percent, but about 80 percent or so, and that's what I'd be doing anyways."

Blackley has worked with new Wisconsin Timber Rattlers' pitching coach and 10-year major league veteran Lance Painter, among others, and believes he's hitting about 85-90 percent of his previous velocity of 85-89 mph.

"We're not using a gun or anything, but I'm pretty sure I'm up there around 80 or so," said Blackley. "I don't have any restrictions. I am throwing what I want."

Blackley's name remains on the official register of the Australian National Team, set to take aim at the first World Baseball Classic next month. But there isn't much chance that he makes the final cut of the Aussie roster, but it's not due to a lack of talent.

"I don't think there's any chance they let me play," said Blackley of the M's protective nature. "I know their coaches (Australia) would want to see me throw and see where I am, but they (Mariners) probably aren't going to want me to pitch. I understand that. I have as good a shot to play for them (Australia) as I do of making the major league team out of spring training."

Blackley is looking forward to the start of spring training and the 2006 season, with hopes that he begins his comeback right where he left off – Triple-A Tacoma. But in case there is a lack of knowledge of Blackley's drive by the general public, he's never set a goal short of the show.

"I think I might start in Tacoma, I guess," said Blackley. "It's up to them, I'm not sure. But I feel really good about where I am right now. I'll be ready to pitch when the season opens. But I want to get back to the majors, Tacoma isn't my goal."

He was given an original timetable of 8-10 months. That timetable was for "throwing without pain." It's still a long road back, but he's pushed his way toward the playing field with a relentless rehab program and a desire to be a success – at the big-league level, no less.

And all along the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder has kept his sense of humor and brimming confidence right in his holster where he could summons either at a moment's notice. When asked if he was healthy enough to strike out yours truly, he humbly asked of my experience at the plate, which side of the plate I'd be hitting from and claimed the following:

"Yeah, I'd getcha," he said with the natural, heavy Outback accent. "I'd just getcha with my cutter. No doubt."

While that feat wouldn't be much of an accomplishment, the sentiment was more than entertainment – mostly because it went further than fanning a career .274 hitter at the high school level.

As Blackley walked through the mall with Dewey, a right-handed hitting catcher, Blackley offered another anecdote as a sign he's healthy and more than ready to compete against top compeitition.

"I'll just say this," he said with poise. "I could strike Dewey here out on three pitches."

While Dewey responded from the background refuting the declaration of his friend and teammate, the only denial was in the manner in which Blackley might get him out.

"He said I might get him, but not with the strikeout," said Blackley.

Like I advised last February less than a week after his surgery, betting against Travis Blackley wouldn't be wise.

Expect the left-hander to defy the odds. The same odds that are so overwhelmingly against him.

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