The first weekend of spring training was potentially pivotal in two of baseball's longest running comeback stories.
The Mike Hampton Comeback, Version 2008, got off to a solid start in Kissimmee, Fla., on Sunday, a day after The Annual Mark Prior Hopefest debuted to enthusiastic reviews in Peoria, Ariz.
Hampton, who hasn't pitched in two years for the Braves, is now in the final year of the infamous eight-year, $121 million deal he signed with Colorado in 2001. He's back on the mound, trying to show in the early days of spring training that he's still got a little something left in that scarred-up pitching arm.
"I've been preparing for this day since the day after the surgery," Hampton said. "I'm excited."
On the mound Sunday, he rubbed down the ball, stared toward home plate and delivered a pitch that swept across the outside corner. Teammate Mark Kotsay never got the bat off his shoulder.
The outfielder nodded approvingly toward the mound. "That's better," Kotsay said.
Brayan Pena was even more enthusiastic. "That-a-boy!" the catcher barked.
"My pitches are starting to come around," Hampton said a few minutes later, standing by his locker in the Braves' clubhouse. "My arm's been feeling pretty sound. I'm happy where I'm at right now."
The former 20-game winner is just 35, not particularly old compared to his rotation-mates John Smoltz (40) and Tom Glavine (41).
While they're not counting on Hampton as much as they did a year ago, they know he could make a stronger rotation look downright formidable. The Braves already have Smoltz, Glavine and Tim Hudson. A healthy Hampton would give them four top-line starters, the sort of rotation that could help Atlanta challenge the free-spending New York Mets and defending champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East.
"Everything we get from him is a bonus," Smoltz said. "There's no other way to put it."
San Diego must feel the same way about Prior. The 27-year-old former phenom joined the Padres on Dec. 26 after spending six seasons with the Cubs, signing a one-year, incentive-laden contract.
His day on the mound was Saturday, when he threw 31 pitches. The big news came Sunday: no soreness.
"It felt good," Prior said. "I felt pretty comfortable on the mound. I was able to focus more on some spots than mechanics and arm."
An 18-game winner with the Chicago Cubs in 2003, Prior hasn't pitched in the major leagues since Aug. 10, 2006. The right-hander had shoulder surgery last season and isn't expected back until mid-May or possibly June. He has been placed on the disabled list nine times in his six-year career, including six times since the start of 2005.
Prior is throwing off the mound every fifth day while doing various rehab activities in between. Prior said he's playing long toss at distances up to 130 feet with accuracy. He said he was encouraged when he began playing long toss beyond 80 feet during January workouts at Petco Park, a feat he hadn't performed in two offseasons.
Two other veteran hurlers took the mound Sunday, with encouraging results.
At Tucson, Ariz., 44-year-old Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks threw off a mound, impressing his manager and his catcher. Six months ago, Johnson had his second back surgery in less than a year.
At Lakeland, Fla., 43-year-old Kenny Rogers of Detroit had to be coerced into ending his session on the mound.
Tigers pitching coach Chuck Hernandez stepped between Rogers and the bullpen catcher, ending the session Sunday.
"Get out of here!" Hernandez shouted.
Rogers reluctantly walked away, with sweat on his brow and grass stains on his knees.
"I just keep going until Chuck stops me," Rogers said with a smile.
He started just 11 games last year his fewest since becoming a starter in 1993 because of two stints on the disabled list.
Just before the season began, Rogers had surgery to remove a blood clot from his left shoulder and was on the DL until late June. He was sidelined again a month later with a left-elbow injury, which an exam later revealed didn't include any tearing.
Rogers is happy to report his shoulder and elbow are relatively healthy.
"But nothing I have works the way you want it to," he said. "That's the way it is unfortunately."
Teammate Nate Robertson isn't buying it.
"I call him the biggest sandbagger on the team because he downplays every thing he does his golf game, fielding his position, playing cards," Robertson said.
As for Johnson, the results were extremely positive.
"He came out throwing bullets the first pitch he threw," Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. "As I've discussed before, the arm's not the issue here. I haven't talked to him since he finished, but I think he's probably pretty pleased with the way it went."
He is not taking part in fielding drills.
"Well, I never was going to win a Gold Glove," he joked.
Johnson threw 27 pitches, taking a brief break after the first 12.
"He surprised me," catcher Miguel Montero said. "He was pounding the strike zone and his arm looked great. It's good news for us."
At Peoria, Ariz., 38-year-old left-hander Arthur Rhodes is trying to make an unlikely comeback after missing the entire 2007 season because of Tommy John elbow surgery.
Rhodes, seeking a spot as a lefty setup man for Seattle, has a tough road ahead of him. The Mariners already have two incumbents Eric O'Flaherty and Ryan Rowland-Smith.
His pitches during the first week of spring training from about three feet in front of the rubber seemed to have the same pop they once did.
"I think I'm way ahead of schedule," Rhodes said.
While manager John McLaren has been impressed with Rhodes' recovery, he isn't sure the team can carry three lefty relievers on its 25-man roster.
"That's kind of like a perfect balance when you have that scenario," McLaren said. "I don't know if we're going to be able to have that kind of luxury."
Still, Rhodes likes his chances. So, too, does Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi, who earlier this month told reporters, "Arthur, I think, maybe will surprise some people."
The news wasn't as good in Phoenix, where Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo has torn cartilage in his left knee and is expected to miss the first four weeks of spring training.
Gallardo will return to Milwaukee on Monday and have the arthroscopic procedure Tuesday. He then will return to the Brewers' camp to begin physical therapy.
Brewers spokesman Tyler Barnes said Sunday the 22-year-old right-hander had discomfort a few days ago after a throwing session. His knee swelled up afterward.