Chris Paddack hadn't stepped on a mound in a game that counted since July 18, 2016. He could not have hoped for a better return.
San Diego's No. 22 prospect, who missed part of 2016 and all of 2017 because of Tommy John surgery, pitched six scoreless innings on Monday. He scattered three hits and struck out seven without issuing a walk in Class A Advanced Lake Elsinore's 6-1 victory over Inland Empire at San Manuel Stadium.
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"It had been something I had been wishing for the past 23 months," Paddack said. "It was great that I had some family here to enjoy it with me. It was definitely a fun little journey after rehab and all that."
The 2015 eighth-round pick out of a Texas high school threw 75 pitches, 55 for strikes. He touched 95 mph and his fastball sat in the low 90s, and he showed the changeup that scouts project as a plus-plus pitch.
Sam Geaney, the Padres' director of player development, was on hand to watch the 22-year-old right-hander's impressive return.
"Definitely we were excited for Chris. It's been a long road back," Geaney said. "The main thing was he is healthy. The results were totally secondary."
Video: Chris Paddack looks strong in return
Geaney said Paddack finished in the range of pitch count the Padres planned for, likely to be his limit for the "foreseeable future."
Coaches told the Austin, Texas native he'd throw anywhere from 80 to 85 pitches, so he wasn't surprised he went out for the sixth inning after not being on a mound for nearly two years.
"I go back in the dugout, and sit in the same spot, and I'm locked in until the manager comes and gets me and shakes my hand," Paddack said, crediting catcher Marcus Greene Jr. for calling a great game. "I keep doing my job until he tells me I'm finished."
The changeup, a go-to pitch for Paddack, was working well, and the 6-foot-4, 195-pound hurler said he worked in a curveball too because he recognized the need for a usable third pitch.
Acquired from the Marlins on June 30, 2016 for closer Fernando Rodney, Paddack was injured after just three stellar starts in the Padres organization. San Diego was careful with his return to the mound, giving him plenty of time to recover from the elbow ligament replacement surgery.
"The timeline varies for each guy," Geaney said. "It's based on the feedback the player is giving as he goes though the rehab."
As talented as Paddack is, he had pitched just 87 2/3 innings in his pro career before Monday and has never thrown more than 45 1/3 innings in a season. He participated in the instructional league last fall, but the Padres started him this year in extended spring camp to build arm strength.
Paddack did admit there was a time he felt discouraged during his lengthy process.
"It was my first little setback, about 11 to 12 months after surgery," he said. "Those were hard times and there were some negative thoughts. But I just thought about my family and friends, and I owe a big shoutout to guys like Robbie Erlin and Colin Rea, big league guys rehabbing who show you just what it takes to be a professional."
The Marlins made Paddack their eighth-round pick in June 2015 and gave him $400,000 to forgo his commitment to Texas A&M. His great changeup and connection to Texas A&M led scouts to see similarities to Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha, although they did not make an outright comparison to Wacha.
Paddack got plenty of offensive support Monday as Buddy Reed homered and singled twice and San Diego's No. 17 prospect Jorge Ona fell a homer shy of the cycle and drove in two runs. Eguy Rosario and Greene also had two hits, and Rosario knocked in two runs.
Paddack's results notwithstanding, the Padres were just happy to see him back out there.
"The main thing tonight was Chris competing," Geaney said. "We were very excited to get him on the mound."
And the righty has a positive spin on his injury.
"This whole time in rehab was the best time of my career because I learned so much about myself," Paddack said. "What I can handle mentally on and off the field. Those 23 months [of rehab] were the hardest thing I've ever had to do."