The road back to the Seibu Dome mound wasn't just long and winding for Saitama Seibu Lions left-hander Alex Graman, it was unmapped and treacherous.
Graman worked an inning last week, his first game back following shoulder surgery for a career-threatening rotator cuff injury. It's an experience he wouldn't "wish upon anybody," the 32-year-old said Thursday before the Lions played the Orix Buffaloes.
"I really never had any surgery and never had any arm problems myself, so I was pretty nervous and scared, especially with a shoulder surgery," Graman said about the procedure, which he underwent July 1 last year.
Graman, a big contributor to the 2008 Japan Series-winning team as a 31-save closer, said the biggest hurdle was the arduous recovery that followed.
"Eight weeks in a sling, couldn't move my arm, had to sit straight up to sleep and it was pretty frustrating not being able to use my arm," he said of the early post-op care.
He couldn't even remove the sling to take a shower.
"The only time I could have it out was when I was sitting down and could lean it against my leg," in the same position as if it were in a sling. "I couldn't drive, I couldn't do anything."
Even when he was well enough to be sling-free, Graman said he preferred to wear it.
"When you have it out, you think you're OK," he explained. "And your natural instinct is if something falls down, you want to grab it. I did that a couple of times."
Graman said he had to stay focused on the long run and not get tripped up by the little bumps in the road.
"They told me I was going to have my ups and downs. But I stuck with it and I'm pain-free now," said Graman, who added the outlook was positive for a full recovery.
"My doctor felt pretty optimistic that I'd be able to come back. You can't rush it--you've got to stay with the program and not try to get back too soon or else you can cause some trouble."
It helped that the Lions have been among the top three in the Pacific League most of the season and didn't need to rush him back because their postseason lives were hanging in the balance.
Graman, who worked in six games last season, didn't have a great debut on Aug. 28, but wasn't about to kick the dirt after finally making it back. He allowed an unearned run--on his own throwing error--to the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles in what turned out to be a 5-5, 12-inning tie.
"Very nervous," is how he described the outing. "It's kind of hard to say that, you've been playing all this time, but you basically haven't played for nearly two years so I was pretty nervous."
While Graman was sidelined, the Lions struggled with left-handed relief help, even kicking the tires on 47-year-old retread Kimiyasu Kudo in hopes of squeezing out his last mile.
Graman said his fastball is back to about his usual velocity--around 142-kph before the operation--and he's ready to help the Lions make a push.
Besides their former ninth-inning man, the Lions--tied for second place a half-game back--have additional ammunition in time for the September stretch run.
Slugger Takeya "Okawari-kun" Nakamura made it back from elbow surgery at the end of last month and has been productive in the middle of the lineup.
Veteran southpaw Kazuhisa Ishii is 2-0 in three starts since his Aug. 18 return from surgery on his left ankle.
Righty Takayuki Kishi, the '08 postseason hero, is still working his way back from shoulder problems, but vowed to be ready for the playoffs.
"Hopefully we can make a strong push here in the last 20 games or so."