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02/05/09 5:55 PM EST

Sampson anticipates start of camp

Reliever feeling strong after offseason elbow surgery

HOUSTON -- With one day remaining until the Astros' equipment truck is packed up and shipped off to Kissimmee, Fla., reliever Chris Sampson dropped by the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park to gather a few last-minute belongings from his locker that he'll need when he reports to Spring Training.

Sampson plans to arrive to the Osceola County Stadium complex a few days before pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 14. He's flying to Florida on the 10th, in order to a) settle in ahead of the influx of pitchers, catchers and coaches; b) continue his throwing program with the help of the team's athletic trainers and c) take his wife and son for a quick trip to Disney.

The 30-year-old Sampson is always eager for the start of Spring Training, but his anticipation is a little stronger this year. That's understandable, considering he spent half the offseason resting his arm after having elbow surgery in October, and the other half slowly rebuilding the arm strength he lost during the down time post-procedure.

Admitting this is the first time he's been pain-free in nearly two years, Sampson has a renewed optimism for the upcoming season.

"It's almost kind of weird, throwing without any pain in the elbow," he said. "I feel like I did in '06, when I first got called up and made my debut. I feel great."

Sampson had surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right elbow immediately following the conclusion of the 2008 season. He was restricted from upper-body exercises until the first of the year, at which time team doctor Tom Mehlhoff said "to go ahead and proceed and act like I never had surgery," Sampson said.

Sampson has been throwing on flat ground, at a distance of about 120 feet. He hasn't gotten on the mound yet, and he estimated he'll be slightly behind the rest of the relievers when pitchers start working out next Friday. Because Spring Training is longer this year, Sampson isn't worried about time restraints; in fact, he's fairly confident he'll be throwing bullpens by late February and could start pitching in games some time in early March.

Hot Stove
"[Head athletic trainer Nate Lucero] said the main goal is not to have me at 100 percent at the start of Spring Training," Sampson said. "It's to have me at 100 percent on Opening Day. I agree with that."

Sampson was a valuable member of the pitching staff in 2008, serving in several capacities: starter, spot starter and reliever. He made 54 appearances, 11 of which were starts, while compiling a 6-4 record and a 4.22 ERA.

Nagging pain, however, was also part of his everyday life. He had three cortisone shots throughout the season, and by the last week of the season had resigned himself to having surgery as soon as the season was complete.

In the weeks and months following the surgery, he set his sights on his goal to add 10 pounds to his 190-pound frame. With upper-body workouts off the table, he concentrated on his legs, and it didn't take long to add a significant amount of muscle. After Jan. 1, Sampson added upper-body exercises, and he'll report to Spring Training at 207 pounds.

"The legs being the largest muscle group in your body, when those get stronger, you're going to gain weight faster," he said. "I think that's what happened. I've been doing some shoulder work, getting that strong. Going in [to Spring Training], I'm ready to go. I can't wait."

The Astros' bullpen has been lauded as one of the strengths of the club, as it was last year. Sampson will likely assume a middle-innings role, and his past starting experience will allow for him to pitch multiple innings, and multiple days in a row.

But first, Sampson must start with the basics, a task he's eager to dive into when he arrives to Florida.

"Right now, I'm just going over mechanics," he said. "I'm feeling good, there's no pain, and that's exciting. I'm ready. I'm really looking forward to this year."

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