By Will Graves
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Edinson Volquez, his surgically repaired right elbow wrapped in yards of bandages, plopped down in a chair and flashed an easy if somewhat exhausted smile.
Less than 11 months removed from Tommy John surgery, the Cincinnati Reds right-hander believes he's days away from returning to the majors.
"I feel great right now over there on the mound," he said. "My arm is ready to go."
It certainly looked it at times on Wednesday, as Volquez took another step toward getting back to the surprising Reds with five solid innings for the Louisville Bats, Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate.
The 26-year-old allowed one run on three hits, striking out one and walking none in sweltering heat that rose into the mid-90s. He threw 80 pitches, 49 for strikes and his fastball topped out at 98 mph, the backbone of a repertoire that helped Volquez make the National League All-Star team in 2008.
He allows he's nowhere near his form that season, when he went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA. Still, he expects to be back with the Reds before the All-Star break. Volquez anticipates he'll make two more starts at Triple-A before moving up.
Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker, while encouraged by Volquez's rapid progress, isn't quite ready to pencil in a date just yet. "You try not to get eager because if you get eager you get the tendency to rush him back. You monitor him," Baker said before the Reds faced the Oakland A's on Wednesday afternoon. "We just want him to feel no unnecessary soreness, normal stuff."
There hasn't been much during Volquez's remarkable recovery. He underwent surgery to repair his elbow last August and has endured no setbacks on the mound.
Off it, however, is another matter. Volquez was suspended 50 games in April after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. He accepted responsibility for the suspension but blamed the test result on a prescribed fertility drug as part of his treatment to start a family with his wife.
Volquez doesn't anticipate any backlash in Cincinnati, but allows things could be different on the road. "Maybe (I'll hear things) in different places," he said. "I'm moving forward. Everything in the past, I keep it in the past."
If he continues to avoid any setbacks, Volquez could bolster a starting pitching staff that has helped keep the Reds competitive. Cincinnati began the day a game back of St. Louis in the NL Central and is attempting to make the playoffs for the first time since 1995.
Volquez has no problems sharing a spot in the rotation with another pitcher to make sure he doesn't rush back too quickly. He's simply eager to get up and help out in any way he can. He believes he can come back even stronger, though he allows the injury has changed how he approaches the game. He now spends his "whole life" in the training room and his already lengthy pregame checklist has gotten even longer. Along with the usual stretching, he now has a combination of ice and heat therapy to get him ready to pitch.
Volquez's stint in Louisville has also allowed him to spend time with Cincinnati's other young star. Cuban refugee Aroldis Chapman threw two innings in relief of Volquez, and the prized left-hander believes he'll join Volquez at some point in Cincinnati later this year.
It was Chapman's first appearance out of the bullpen, a move made to accommodate Volquez. Louisville manager Rick Sweet said he's heard nothing about trying to transition Chapman into more of a reliever role in case he's moved up.
Volquez is impressed with Chapman, who is 5-5 with a 4.12 ERA this season, but thinks the 22-year-old needs to attack more.
Chapman has struggled with his control at times. His 41 walks are second in the International League. "I told him to be aggressive with a hitter, use the fastball," Volquez said. "He can do whatever he wants."
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley in Oakland, Calif., contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)