M's hope rehab outing is Bedard's last

TACOMA, Wash. -- Erik Bedard was uncharacteristically smiling. He even stayed late to sign autographs.

He was happy that his long road back to the major leagues was nearly over.

Bedard was grinning inside the cinderblock clubhouse of the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers on Thursday night. He allowed an unearned run and three infield singles in 4 1/3 innings of what should be his final rehabilitation outing before making his first start of the season for the Seattle Mariners next week.

The 31-year-old former Baltimore Orioles ace walked three and struck out three in Tacoma's 2-1 win over Portland. He threw 81 pitches, 51 for strikes, on a cool, drizzly night. He admitted he was tired at the end because it was the most pitches he'd thrown in 11 months.

"Yeah, I feel pretty good," Bedard said after the closest thing to a major league game for the left-hander since July 25, when he felt pain in his shoulder. He then had surgery Aug. 14 to repair a torn labrum.

If Bedard's shoulder responds well, the Mariners are penciling him in to make his 2010 debut on Tuesday in Seattle against Kansas City. Besides this outing, he made two appearances last month for their rookie league team in Arizona.

Even though the Mariners want to see how he feels Friday before declaring his return will be Tuesday, Bedard believes he's ready.

Should he prove healthy, he could be an attractive free agent this fall -- or potentially a chip that last-place Seattle could dangle to contenders in a deal before the July 31 deadline for trading without waivers.

The Mariners signed Bedard to a $1.75 million, one-year deal before spring training, knowing he wouldn't pitch until June at the earliest. At 10 1/2 months since the surgery, he is on track with the Mariners' original assessment on his return.

"Just trying to go up there and help the team win," said Bedard, whom the Mariners have paid $14.75 million for two seasons, 11 wins and 30 starts.

He arrived from Baltimore in February 2008 for five top prospects. Two of them -- closer George Sherrill and outfielder Adam Jones -- became All-Stars while Bedard had two shoulder surgeries.

"I know a lot about rehabbing," he said.

Tugging on the low neckline of his white Rainiers jersey to reveal his Mariners logo on his blue undershirt, Bedard started quickly. Nine of his 10 pitches were strikes in a four-minute top of the first. It ended with a strikeout on a sharp curveball, a reminder that Bedard went 28-16 with 392 strikeouts in his final two seasons with Baltimore through 2007.

Portland then became more patient and fouled off more pitches while Bedard kept working on his changeup.

All three of the hits never got past infielders: a hard groundball by Kyle Phillips in the second that banged off the glove of third baseman Matt Tuiasosopo; a squibber off the bat of Chris Stewart in the fourth that stopped rolling inside the third-base line before Bedard picked it up; and a bunt single up the first-base line by Luis Durango, after Bedard had walked Craig Stansberry on five pitches to begin the fifth.

Bedard left one out later. He seemed like his normal, quiet self then, showing no emotion while fist-bumping Rainiers on his way off the field.

But inside, he was obviously happy.

"I worked on the changeup. That's what they wanted," he said of the Mariners. "And I was throwing it for strikes.

"It was OK. Probably wished I had thrown more strikes," he added. "But it worked."