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01/06/11 8:30 PM EST

Bailey staying focused during rehab

A's closer remains patient in return from elbow surgery

OAKLAND -- Andrew Bailey's ascension into the big leagues is no ordinary tale.

That's why his story -- struggling Double-A starter turned Arizona Fall League phenom turned Spring Training sensation turned American League Rookie of the Year and two-time All-Star closer -- has been told time and time again.

Bailey relishes and appreciates his good fortune, no doubt. But he's ready to illustrate a new chapter, one that builds on those that came before.

And so, the first step in jump-starting that process is getting healthy. The A's right-hander was shut down two weeks before the end of the 2010 campaign to undergo cleanup surgery on his previously repaired right elbow, and he was recently cleared to begin throwing again.

Such progression has Bailey on track to regain the club's closer role by Opening Day. Before then, though, he has to clear multiple hurdles, including throwing from 120 feet pain-free so that his doctors can essentially release him into Oakland's care again. Thursday marked his final day at 60 feet, and Bailey's intent on reaching the 120-foot mark at or around the time pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to camp Feb. 12 in Phoenix.

"I'm actually surprised about how good I feel, in terms of my extension," Bailey said by phone Thursday while driving home from a workout with teammate Craig Breslow in Connecticut. "I was at a negative-25 degree extension before surgery, and I was pitching like that for three years, and now I'm below 10 degrees. I've never seen my arm go that straight, which is a good thing."

With rehab comes patience, both with which Bailey is familiar. The 26-year-old righty underwent Tommy John surgery while in college, a time during which he spent a year away from game action. He's hoping to begin throwing off the mound and taking part in long toss not too long after his Arizona arrival, but at the same time realizes he can't create his own timetable for such things.

"You pick up a baseball and think, 'I don't even know what to do with this. How am I ever going to pitch again?'" he said. "Going through Tommy John and knowing what it took to overcome that, with a year of rehab, a couple months this time around weren't really anything. Knowing that a lot of guys have had the procedure I've had done, you can't be paranoid about it because it will ruin your experience and give you a bad mindset going into everyday rehab and the throwing program. I was always open-minded through the process and want to push the limits but not overdo it."

The 24-year-old version of Bailey would've already surpassed the limit. That's because he would have been fighting for a job. This time around, he's got the security, as well as the support from the A's organization -- particularly Ron Romanick, former bullpen coach and current pitching coach.

"I spoke to Romanick today," Bailey said, "and he told me, 'You don't have to come into camp like you did a couple years ago where you had to impress and come full bore and game-ready. Once you get to Spring Training, you still have a month and a half to be game-ready. You don't have to come throwing your hardest. Just do what you need to do to come ready for Spring Training.'

"We'll be working together over the next couple of weeks as I get out to greater distances. We'll be in contact weekly. He is a true student of the game, a student of the throwing programs. He's always modifying rehab programs and making it comfortable for each and every person. It's great. It's comforting to know you have someone working hard on the other side of things to make sure that you're healthy enough to be on the field and play the game."

Bailey's late-season elbow injury marked his second time being sidelined in 2010, as he missed nearly a month while stationed on the disabled list with a right intercostal strain beginning in late July. Both setbacks meant he was not afforded the chance to match or surpass his save total of 26 garnered in his rookie season. Yet, Bailey still managed to compile a 1.47 ERA, 25 saves and a 0.96 WHIP in 47 appearances.

Personal accolades and numbers are all well and good, but Bailey is ready to prioritize his dreams. He made it to the big leagues, glided through his rookie year and avoided the sophomore slump with a second straight All-Star appearance.

"It's about winning the division and everything that comes after that," he said. "That becomes the dream and hopefully the reality.

"I'm at a point where I'm not over the awe of being in the big leagues, because I don't think that will ever go away, but I think I've come to terms with this being my job and understanding that this is going to be my livelihood, I want it to be my livelihood, and the work and dedication that I put into that is important.

"Instead of just thinking I made it to the big leagues and it's a dream come true -- the dream is still there, of course -- you realize it's a job, but making it to the playoffs and winning the World Series, those are the dreams you start to think about instead of just getting to the big leagues."

Slated to join Bailey in the bullpen on that mission this year are fellow right-handers Michael Wuertz, Brad Ziegler and, if healthy, Joey Devine, along with lefties Breslow and Jerry Blevins. Newcomers Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy are among candidates who could adhere to that crowd.

"For myself, I'd like to stay healthy the whole year and build on what we did last year," Bailey said. "With the bullpen guys we had last year, I think we can come back and do the same, if not better, with everyone healthy."

While overcoming a slew of injuries, the A's bullpen still performed admirably in 2010. Oakland's relief corps ranked third in the AL in save percentage (74.5 percent) and fourth in inherited runners to score (27.1 percent). Bailey was around plenty to aide in those numbers, but not enough for his liking.

"Hopefully all my injuries are behind me," he said. "I've done a lot this offseason to get myself into good shape. It always stinks when you have to have an arm injury, but going into this year with a clean bill of health, I'm excited about all of the possibilities."

Cheering him on will be his biggest fan, college sweetheart and, now, newest family member, Amanda, whom Bailey married surrounded by family and friends -- including A's pitchers Breslow and Trevor Cahill -- in a November ceremony in Connecticut.

The wedding, not to mention a honeymoon in Tahiti and Bora Bora, was quite a success.

"She showed up," Bailey said with a laugh, "so that was a plus."

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.