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02/23/10 7:21 PM EST

Worrell on fast track in elbow rehab

Reliever close to game action less than a year after surgery

PEORIA, Ariz. -- A week ago Thursday, Padres pitchers and catchers reported to Peoria for the start of Spring Training.

For Mark Worrell, it was like he never left.

Worrell spent much of 2009 at the Padres' Spring Training facility working his way back from Tommy John surgery to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow.

Worrell suffered the injury during a game on March 17 of Spring Training last year and had surgery on March 25. The typical recovery time from that injury is 12 to 18 months.

Worrell wasn't interested in waiting that long.

"From what I heard when I first had the surgery, it was a 12-to-18-month process for most people if everything goes smoothly," Worrell said. "But from the start [of rehabilitation], I was very optimistic. I tried to make it a 12-month process. And so far everything has gone well."

Which is why Worrell was on a mound late last week throwing. The right-hander isn't on the same every-other-day program of the other pitchers in camp but is throwing off the mound every fourth day.

He's been told that he could appear in Cactus League games as soon as March 10, which would be 15 days shy of his one-year anniversary from surgery.

"We expected him to be at this stage," Padres manager Bud Black said. "He's on track.

Worrell is still at a point where he hasn't really turned the ball loose. That will come at some point. He's deferring to the training staff until that day comes.

"I feel like I can let it go, but it's a fine line," Worrell said. "The trainers are holding me back. They don't want me to progress too quickly, which I completely understand. I want to keep progressing and make it a long career.

"I don't want to come back too quick and hurt myself for the long term. But I feel pretty good. I'm following the program the trainers have given to me."

Worrell has barely been on the Padres' radar since being acquired in December 2008 from the St. Louis Cardinals for shortstop Khalil Greene. The player to be named later in that deal, reliever Luke Gregerson, made a big splash last season as a rookie, posting a 3.24 ERA.

All the while Worrell was sweating away the summer in Peoria, rehabilitating his right elbow.

"It was terrible. I was trying to come in and make a good impression and help the team ... but it was really disappointing," Worrell said. "After a few weeks, I tried to take that negative energy and make it a positive and start thinking about next year, I wanted to make it to a one-year process."

Given that Worrell missed a year, and there figures to be few open spots in the bullpen, it's conceivable that the 26-year-old could open the season with Triple-A Portland if he continues to progress.

Worrell owns a career 2.96 ERA in the Minor Leagues with 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He has a 7.94 ERA in four Major League games with the Cardinals in 2008.

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.