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03/09/12 5:21 PM EST

Surgery, rehab paying off so far for Arrieta

Throwing free and easy, O's pitcher sharp in spring debut

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- In his first Major League game in more than seven months, Orioles pitcher Jake Arrieta looked anything but rusty.

The powerful right-hander, who turned 26 on Tuesday, tossed two hitless innings against the Rays on Friday afternoon in his Grapefruit League debut, and did so in impressive fashion. Arrieta's fastball topped out at 97 mph, and he issued one walk, a full-count free pass to Carlos Pena in the first inning, for his only baserunner of the afternoon.

"That's really the best I've felt, not only this year Spring Training, but I think in my professional career to date," said Arrieta, who had season-ending surgery in August to remove a bone spur in his right elbow. "[I felt] free and easy, not much effort, but the results were as expected."

A frontrunner for a rotation spot, and strong candidate to be the Orioles' Opening Day starter, Arrieta retired the last four batters he faced, including a strikeout of Jose Molina. After going back-and-forth at the end of 2010 -- and opting to pitch with the spur -- Arrieta made the decision to go under the knife after spending hours in the training room before every start last season. He said Friday's performance made the entire ordeal, which included months of rehab, worthwhile.

"It was a hard position for me to be in, having to contemplate surgery, being shut down for the year, not knowing what the results were going to be," Arrieta said. "But being in the situation I am now, putting in the hours of hard work, day in, day out over the offseason and this first three weeks of camp, I can't be happier with where I am now."

A full-go in Spring Training since Day 1, Arrieta has said that removing the spur has helped his mechanics, particularly by keeping his arm in a more direct line to the plate, an effect which he hopes will help his command. He issued 59 walks to go along with 93 strikeouts last season, ending the year after a July 31 start with a 10-8 record and 5.05 ERA.

"There's still room for improvement, I still have some strength to gain back, but I think it's going to be a fun year," said Arrieta, who said he felt as if he could have thrown the entire game.

"You could see it in his face; this was a pretty big moment for him to finally get back out there," manager Buck Showalter said. "If you had told me last year when he made the decision to do what he did, that we'd be sitting here today, I'd feel real good about it. He worked his butt off with the rehab and everything. Today was a good return for it."

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.