PALM SPRINGS — The last time John Candelaria and Gary Lucas pitched off the mound at Angel Stadium here, both left the field in pain.
The date was March 21, 1986, and Candelaria, suffering from a sore elbow, grimaced through the first three innings of an exhibition game against the Milwaukee Brewers, yielding a triple, a double, four singles and two runs.
Lucas didn't fare that well. In the 10th inning, he collapsed in agony, clutching his lower back, couldn't get up and had to be helped from the field.
Both returned to Palm Springs Thursday night, hopeful of getting their careers back on track. Candelaria started for the Class A Angels and pitched five innings, throwing 56 pitches--46 of which were strikes--against the Salinas Spurs. He yielded two hits, a bloop single to Greg Fulton and a line-drive double to Dan Clark, and one run.
"Candy was much better than we had any right to expect," California Manager Gene Mauch said. "His control was remarkable. He didn't get every pitch exactly where he wanted it, but they were strikes nonetheless.
"He changed speeds on the ball and only one curveball wasn't where he wanted it."
Candelaria's performance was a sharp contrast to his only other outing this season when he gave up six hits and four earned runs in just two innings April 4 at Seattle. The pain in his elbow was more than he could bear and tests revealed a crack in the calcification. He underwent elbow surgery April 16 to remove the bone spur.
"There was no pain and that is definitely a stepping stone forward," Candelaria said. "There was a little stiffness during that long inning (when the Angels scored three runs in the second), but there was no pain whatsoever and I'm happy about that."
Candelaria will meet with Mauch and pitching coach Marcel Lachemann today to discuss his future. If all goes well, he's scheduled to throw in the bullpen on Saturday and will pitch again Tuesday. The question, of course, is where.
"We'll check with him tomorrow and then, depending on what we decide, he could pitch Tuesday in Anaheim," Mauch said. "I feel optimistic. But we're not going to pitch him until he feels confident he can go five or six innings. We want everything to be positive about his first outing."
Candelaria, who threw one 90 m.p.h. fastball and was consistently in the high-80s, said he felt he could have pitched longer Thursday night.
"I guess I'm about 90%, but it's tough to pitch against big league hitters when you're not 100%. I want to pitch and I'm gonna try and get there as soon as possible."
It's been 12 years since Candelaria faced Class A batters and he admitted it was "a weird feeling."
"It was fun to see the kids having a good time playing baseball," he said, blinking into the television lights. "It brought back a lot of good memories. I sure didn't know there would be this many media people here.
"I just want to help the California Angels and I think we're one pitcher away right now. I think I can be that pitcher."
Lucas, who has received several cortisone injections this season, is still a long way from filling that role, though. He pitched the sixth and seventh innings Thursday night and threw 34 pitches. Twenty-six were strikes, but Salinas batters got four hits and three runs (two were earned).
"It's going to take two or three more outings to see how his back reacts and if he can regain his control," Lachemann said.
Lucas was a little more descriptive.
"My location stunk and rhythm-wise, I have a long way to go," he said, "but I feel real good about my back. There was some achiness, but that's normal. It doesn't affect my pitching.
"I think we've made some progress here. I just hope I don't wake up tomorrow with any discomfort."
Mauch probably slept quite comfortably in his Palm Springs home Thursday night. Things are looking up. The Angels just returned home from a successful trip that included a sweep of the Texas Rangers. And it looks as if Candelaria should be back in the rotation soon.