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02/14/08 4:25 PM ET

Ryan's Opening Day goal in sight

Despite '07 elbow surgery, closer aims to head north with Jays

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- B.J. Ryan's distinct voice carried traces of Louisiana to each corner of the Blue Jays' clubhouse as he held court between a row of lockers. In the surrounding seats, a group of fellow relievers listened attentively as the grinning pitcher spoke.

With attendance still in the voluntary stage until Saturday's first official workout, the players already on hand at the Bobby Mattick Training Center didn't mind taking advantage of some down time. After a Thursday morning of light activity, Ryan and some of his teammates lounged at their lockers and spun stories from the offseason.

"It's going to be nice to have B.J. back," Blue Jays catcher Gregg Zaun said from the other side of the room, "both on and off the field, in and out of the clubhouse, because he's a veteran presence. He's old school. He really understands the way things are supposed to be done."

If Ryan has his way, he'll be able to have similar clubhouse chats with his bullpen cohorts in the bowels of Yankee Stadium come Opening Day on March 31. Over the past nine months, Toronto's closer has kept one goal in mind: being able to depart Spring Training with the Blue Jays.

It's a daunting task for Ryan, who underwent Tommy John ligament-replacement surgery on his left elbow on May 10, 2007. Such a procedure can sometimes require more than a year of recovery for pitchers. In Ryan's case, he and the Blue Jays' brass are optimistically clinging to the hope that his recovery will be more swift.

"You hear peoples' opinions," Ryan said on Thursday, "but you go through it yourself and see what you can do and what you're capable of doing. I just kind of had the mindset, 'Put yourself in the best situation you can when you get to Spring Training and see what happens.'

"I don't know what's going to happen. I'm just going to go and work hard and put myself in a position to break camp with the team."

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, sitting down with reporters for a casual interview on Thursday, said he's going to take extra precaution with Ryan's progress. Ryan is adamant about his desire to rejoin Toronto's bullpen by the end of Spring Training, but Gibbons won't risk a setback simply to meet the pitcher's personal goal.

"That's his goal. That's the kind of guy he is," said Gibbons, noting that Ryan's status will influence decisions involving the vacant rotation and bullpen spots. "We'll just see where that goes. We'll see where he's at and when he's going to be ready."

As far as Zaun can tell, Ryan is on an impressive pace, considering when the pitcher's operation took place. Toronto's catcher was stunned at Ryan's progress after receiving an assortment of crisp fastballs and sliders from the 6-foot-6 left-hander in a bullpen session on Monday.

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"I'm astonished. That's the only way I can say it," Zaun said. "He's way ahead of where I expected him to be, based on what little I know about the injury. The one thing I do know about that surgery is these guys seem to come back with a better elbow than they had before.

"For him to jump up there that soon, and be able to throw his slider the way he was and have as much zip on the fastball as he did, it was extremely encouraging. You can tell B.J.'s worked his tail off all summer and all winter to get right."

Ryan, who saved 38 games and posted a 1.37 ERA in his first tour with Toronto in 2006, indicated that he's thrown off a mound five times. Before joining the Blue Jays' early arrivals in Florida, Ryan and Toronto pitching coach Brad Arnsberg teamed up for bullpen sessions near the pitcher's home in Texas this past offseason.

Those meetings were a continuation of the throwing program that Ryan began last August. By late September, Ryan was throwing on flat ground in front of Toronto's medical staff inside Rogers Centre. Once the closer advanced to a distance of 120 feet comfortably, he shut his throwing program down for a month.

After exiting an outing on April 14 against Detroit, Ryan spent much of last season away from the team in order to focus on making his way back from the injury and operation. The absence of baseball forced the 32-year-old to find a new outlet for his competitive nature, attempting to return sooner than expected.

"You love to prove people wrong and it just comes down to competing," said Ryan, who signed a five-year deal worth $47 million with the Jays in November 2005. "When I had Tommy John, the competition was gone. I was done for a year. So you have to focus on something else.

"The goal is to get back as fast as you can -- not to where you do something stupid and try to do too much too fast. You listen to the guys around you and, you know, it's worked out well so far."

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