Closer preparing for return this season

SAN FRANCISCO -- San Francisco Giants closer Robb Nen isn't saying if he'll be ready to pitch by San Francisco's season opener on April 5.

At the same time, Nenn doesn't understand why his chances of pitching some time in 2004 are all but being written off. For a while now, he's been preparing physically and mentally to reclaim his role in the Giants' bullpen.

"I definitely feel if I come back, I'm the closer. That's my mind-set," Nen told the San Francisco Chronicle in a phone interview. "I have no doubts I'm going to come back and I'm going to be almost where I was before.

"That's my point of view. Until things change, and somebody tells me differently, that's my job."

Giants trainer Stan Conte said this week he isn't sure when Nen will pitch again for the Giants, or how his troublesome shoulder will react when he does.

"We think it's likely that he's going to do fine, but we're not
100 percent sure as we are with other players," Conte said in a
conference call with reporters Tuesday night. "The bottom line on this is we
haven't mapped out a specific plan for him in spring. You simply
have to cross some hurdles to make sure he's ready, and when he's
ready we'll put him out there."

Conte expects ace Jason Schmidt to be ready by early April,as planned. Schmidt, recovering from elbow surgery, might throw off the mound for the first time next week.

Nen, a three-time All-Star who had 43 saves and a 2.20 ERA in 2002, didn't pitch last year after right shoulder surgery May 7 to repair a torn tendon. He has been rehabbing and is throwing off a mound a couple times a week.

"I told [general manager] Brian Sabean he'll be ready Opening
Day or he'll probably never be ready," Conte told The Associated
Press earlier Tuesday in a telephone interview. "The extent of his
surgeries can in fact be career-ending. We're very cautious, not
even cautiously optimistic."

And with good reason.

Nen's shoulder did not respond well to operations in November 2002 and April 18, 2003. The 34-year-old Nen, the Giants' career leader in saves with 206, was on the disabled list all last season. He has 314 saves in his 11-year career.

"The poor guy has been doing rehab for three years, doing what
we've asked him to do, and has thrown off the mound," Conte said.
"The bottom line on Robb Nen is we will not know until he has a
rehab assignment, so we're going to hold judgment on this until he
pitches. I'm not going to be upbeat about Robb Nen all the way
through until he picks up his 45th save. I don't want to put a lot
of pressure on him."

Conte saw Nen two weeks ago in Arizona and the two talk several times a week.

Schmidt had surgery in October on his right elbow to remove scar tissue and repair a tear in the tendon.

Schmidt, who has been hampered by elbow tendinitis several times in his career, was the NL starter in his first All-Star game last
season, pitching two scoreless innings on short rest. His elbow
flared up the following day.

He will be limited early in spring training

"He's been throwing for about a month and is having no problems with his elbow," Conte said. "We will be careful with him early on to make sure he's strong enough to get through."

Schmidt's elbow gave him more problems on breaking pitches late last season. "Until he throws a curveball in competition we'll be
holding our breath," Conte said.

The lanky right-hander missed a turn and his sore elbow limited him down the stretch for the NL West champions. After Schmidt pitched a three-hit shutout in the Giants' 2-0 Game 1 win over the Florida Marlins in the NL division series, rookie Jerome Williams started Game 4 over Schmidt, who would have been pitching on three days' rest. Manager Felipe Alou was criticized for the move, but said Schmidt was physically unable to go.

Schmidt had a breakout season in 2003, going 17-5 with the
National League's lowest ERA (2.34).

In addition to Schmidt, right-hander Jesse Foppert also is
recovering from elbow surgery late in his rookie season. He had
reconstructive surgery in September and won't be ready to pitch
again until this September.

He has been working with Conte in San Francisco and is throwing on flat ground.

"We're going to be ultra cautious and conservative and not put
pressure on these guys to be ready by a certain date," Conte said.
"With all these pitchers you just can't tell until they get into
competition whether they'll hold together."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.