RANCHO CUCAMONGA, Calif. — Brian Wilson’s first major step in his comeback was short and sweet. Maybe too short.
Signed by the Dodgers last week to fortify their bullpen, Wilson threw eight pitches Wednesday night at Class A Rancho Cucamonga in his first competitive outing since undergoing reconstructive elbow surgery 16 months ago.
Facing the Lake Elsinore Storm, Wilson threw a routine first inning, getting two first-pitch ground outs and striking out the second batter he faced on six pitches. He topped out at 91 mph.
He looked like the same Wilson who collected 171 career saves over seven seasons for the San Francisco Giants — right down to the long, raven-black beard that he tied at the bottom with a rubber band.
“My arm feels fine,” he said afterward. “We’ll just see tomorrow. That’s basically what we’re here to do is see the bounce-back factor.”
The Dodgers want Wilson, 31, to throw in several competitive outings before they bring him up, probably in a couple of weeks. He’s expected to join the team’s Triple-A affiliate at Albuquerque on Thursday and could pitch as soon as Friday.
But for Wilson, the question isn’t whether his elbow can handle the strain of big-league pitching; it’s getting back in a big-league mindset.
“It won’t take me much (longer),” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever really pitched on physical strength. Most of it was mental for me. Mentally, I feel like I’ve been ready for a while.”
His first hurdle Wednesday was coping with the adrenalin of facing live batters. Then it was getting outs.
He got the first batter, Travis Jankowski, to hit a first-pitch ground ball to second base. No. 2 hitter Kyle Gaedele worked the count to 3-and-1, took a called strike, then swung and missed on an 87-mph cutter. Jace Peterson also grounded out to second.
It was almost too fast, but Wilson insisted he wasn’t interested in stretching out his arm and working on his stuff. He wanted to face batters and get outs.
“I don’t know too many pitchers that want to stretch it out,” he said. “Three-pitch innings would be ideal every time out. I would enjoy doing that.”
Wilson had offers from several teams but signed with the Dodgers for $1 million for the remainder of the season. His primary role will be as a setup man for closer Kenley Jansen.
“I wanted to compete,” he said. “It’s the last two months of the year, and they showed interest in me. They’re giving me a chance to make a comeback, so I’m going to honor that and thank them for giving me a chance to play baseball again.”
Any affection he felt toward the Giants, who drafted him in 2003 and for whom he became a popular figure, is behind him. Putting on a Dodgers uniform for the first time, he said, will not feel awkward.
“It’s not strange, not at all,” he said. “I’m going to put on my uniform like I put on any uniform, except I play for the Dodgers now. That’s what I’m concerned with at this point.”
The Quakes seemed to embrace Wilson’s brief stay. Their mascot, Tremor, sported a long black beard and gave Wilson a first pump before the game, and the team photoshopped beards on their players’ faces when they were displayed on the outfield video screen.
Wilson shagged balls in the outfield during batting practice, watched the clubhouse TV with his teammates and signed autographs for fans. He granted no fewer than three separate interviews with reporters.
Being back at the low-level minors, he said, reminded him of how much fun he had when he last pitched at Class A in 2006.
“I like it,” he said. “It just reminds me when I was in A ball and I had probably the greatest time I had in baseball when I was there. Just the competition, everybody is kind of staying near the same place, you’re grinding it out in hotels, you’re taking bus trips for 16 hours, playing card games, just being a kid. It’s fun, real fun.”
But it’s only temporary.
Asked how soon he would be ready to join the Dodgers, he answered, “Whenever they need me.”