Angel pitcher Gary Lucas was impressive Monday night, pitching 4 innings of scoreless, one-hit relief against the Milwaukee Brewers in only his second appearance since coming off the disabled list last Thursday.
But that performance alone didn't signify the left-hander's return to prominence in the Angel bullpen. The true test would be the next day, when Lucas could see how his lower back would respond to the stress of the night before.
In his case, it was no pain, big gain.
"The most gratifying thing, besides giving the team a chance to come back in the game, was that my back felt good the next day," said Lucas, who missed the first 3 1/2 months of the season because of his spinal problems.
"So many times after I'd throw on the sidelines (during rehabilitation), I'd be real sore and achy the next day. But Tuesday really gave me an indication that I was over the hump and all the way back."
Lucas was just glad to be able to walk off the mound after retiring 13 of the 14 batters he faced in Monday night's 5-3 loss. He was deprived of that honor the last time he pitched against the Brewers.
That was back on Mar. 21, during a spring-training game at Palm Springs. Several innings after John Candelaria had departed with an elbow injury, Lucas crumbled near the mound after an 0-2 pitch to Jim Aducci in the top of the 10th. He was in too much pain to get up and had to be carried off the field.
After four months of extensive therapy, a three-week stint with the Class-A Angels at Palm Springs, and some doubts as to whether he would ever pitch again, Lucas thinks he has fully recovered.
"I feel virtually pain-free," he said before Wednesday night's series finale against the Brewers at Anaheim Stadium.
Lucas, 31, who was acquired from the Montreal Expos in an off-season trade, has had back problems before. A nerve problem caused him to miss two months of the 1985 season, but a cortisone shot in May allowed him to pitch the rest of the year. He went 6-2 with a 3.19 earned-run average for the Expos.
The same treatment didn't work this time around. Lucas had six cortisone shots in six different places, but none had the same long-term effects as the one he had last year.
So he tried other things. Lucas, with the aid of a physical therapist and a chiropractor, used heat and ice treatments on his back. He tried whirlpool and massage, ultra-sound and electrical stimulation and minor traction. He tried a few two-week rest periods.
He even tried acupuncture.
"We were reaching for a few things," Lucas said. "There wasn't much more we could do."
These were trying times. Lucas went from the 15-day disabled list on Mar. 31 to the 21-day disabled list on April 10. On May 27, he went to the 60-day disabled list.
Whenever he would begin to feel a little better, he would try throwing on the sidelines. But that usually resulted in more pain and would set him back even further. Understandably, Lucas began to wonder if he would ever return.
"Sometimes those thoughts would enter my mind, but I tried not to dwell on them," he said. "I tried not to get so frustrated that I wouldn't want to continue with therapy."
It wasn't until Lucas was placed on an exercise program to strengthen the muscles in his lower back, instead of just stretching them, that he began to feel better.
Lucas worked his way back and was able to pitch at Palm Springs. He felt considerable improvement during his last three appearances there and was reactivated last Thursday.
He entered Thursday night's game against Toronto in the top of the ninth and allowed a double by Willie Upshaw. Cliff Johnson then grounded out, Ernie Whitt singled, and Lucas was replaced by Doug Corbett.
Lucas was more disappointed with his mental approach to the game than with his pitching results.
"I had more butterflies than I thought I would," he said. "It was my first time back in Anaheim. I was thinking about working with (catcher Bob) Boone again and about what signs we'd use with a runner on second.
"I was worried about all the other elements when I should have been thinking about the hitters and where to throw the ball. I didn't give myself the best chance to succeed."
He did Monday night. Lucas replaced Ron Romanick in the fifth inning, struck out the first three batters he faced--Ernest Riles, Rob Deer and Dale Sveum--and limited the Brewers to one hit the rest of the way. The Angels lost, but Manager Gene Mauch was extremely pleased with Lucas.
"Outstanding," was how he described his performance.
Lucas liked it.
"Monday night gave me the feeling that I don't have to think about my back when I pitch," he said. "I can be aggressive and throw the ball over the plate instead of being timid and worrying about my back."
With left-handed reliever Terry Forster still on the disabled list, Lucas obviously is a welcomed addition to the Angel bullpen.
"The thing I can bring is ability with experience," said Lucas, who spent four years with the San Diego Padres and two with the Expos before coming to the Angels. "If I can pitch consistently, I can take a load off the others in the bullpen."
And his back, too.