PORT ST. LUCIE -- To the uninformed or untrained eye, it was nothing of great importance, nothing more than a routine Spring Training episode. A tall, bearded right-hander, wearing No. 39 on the back of his white uniform top, crossed the first-base line 15 feet from the plate having thrown 36 batting-practice pitches to a set of Mets teammates.
Yet nothing about how Bobby Parnell left the playing field on Saturday morning was routine. His catcher rose from a squat and extended his right hand as if special acknowledgement and congratulations were in order. Daniel Murphy, one of the participants in batting practice, shook Parnell's hand and slapped his back as if the Mets closer had saved an important victory in late summer. Finally, David Wright embraced Parnell with a demonstration of emotion that hardly seemed appropriate for the first day of March.
"It's a big day for Bobby," Wright said. "And that makes it a big day for all of us."
To say Parnell had saved the Mets' season is to overstate the situation, but his throwing and his "everything's fine" reaction made the Mets' day. Parnell drew parallels to comparable points in previous camps and said, "I feel like I did then. No pain. No problem." His readiness to pitch important innings by the end of the month -- Opening Day is March 31 - is no longer in question, he said. And a hint of relief showed on his face as he headed back to the clubhouse via the gate in center field.
Parnell had not thrown a pitch to a hitter since July 30, the most promising of his five full seasons in the big leagues cut short by surgery on his neck for a ruptured disc. His convalescence had passed without setback. He had taken hundreds of what he called baby steps. But the step he took Saturday at the Mets' training camp headquarters qualified, he said, as "a giant stride."
He will know more by Sunday morning, some 20 hours after the most rigorous throwing of his return. Residual soreness was expected. "But I think I cleared a big hurdle today," he said. Hence his sense of satisfaction and the series of "attaboys" from his colleagues.
"We did a lot of work together last summer," Wright said, recalling the weeks that preceded Parnell's surgery and the hours of rehab necessitated by the rupture of his hamstring. "I know how much work he put in; I'm sure he was scared. … That's surgery you don't hear about every day in baseball. I know how much he wanted to come back strong. I know he won't say it, but he knows how important he is to us and what we're hoping to accomplish this year."
The Mets have brought to this camp relievers with resumes longer and more impressive than Parnell's. But no one here has a notion the likes of Jose Valverde or Kyle Farnsworth will provide set-up innings comparable to those offered last summer by LaTroy Hawkins, much less ninth-inning relief equivalent to what Parnell supplied before his body betrayed him.
Parnell had converted 14 of 31 save opportunities before 2013. Then last season, before his 29th birthday, he turned all but four of 26 opportunities into saves. And his ERA shrank to 2.16 from a career average of 3.83. He amassed 44 strikeouts in 50 innings. The word potential was eliminated for the terms used to describe him. He is not yet an accomplished closer, but he now has 36 career saves and one self-satisfying comeback to his name. "Getting back to where you can pitch does make you feel more confident," Parnell said.
On Saturday as Parnell threw pitches -- "down, down in the zone," he said -- to Wright, Murphy and Eric Young, he thought about the hours spent in rehab. And he may have cackled a bit under his breath when he sawed off Murphy's bat. He collected the bat before he left the field and placed its splintered head in the second baseman's locker.
"Too early to call him on it," Parnell said. But he acknowledged he might mention it on a charter flight or a bus ride come summer. It will be rewarding to participate again in the intra-mural chirping that makes a long baseball summer more entertaining.
A player assigned to the disabled list seldom feels he has the right to chide a healthy teammate. It will be a second stage in his comeback. But it will not lift him as Saturday's three dozen pitches did. Truth be told, Parnell sort of enjoyed the rocket to right center Wright hit against him. It was more comforting than any moment in his rehab.
When Parnell was throwing bullpen sessions "with no batters in there, it seemed like I couldn't miss with a pitch," he said, "but you knew that wasn't real. You throw a hitter in there, and it changes, it's 100 times harder. But it felt great to face some guys, face some hitters and find the strike zone with some intensity turned up. It was a nice feeling today.
"No pain. No soreness. There was nothing holding me back today, so it was a great first step."
Parnell had also been affected by a slight strain of his left quadriceps. But that obstacle has also been removed from his path to Opening Day.
"I don't have that second gear to run as hard as I want to," he said, "but I have been going through everything half or three-quarters speed and am still getting my work done. It's still there. I'm babying it a little bit and getting therapy every day."
Parnell, pitching coach Dan Warthen said, is likely to pitch in a B-squad game on Thursday along with Bartolo Colon (calf) and Jon Niese (shoulder). All three are moving in the right direction.
Indeed, Parnell's revival on the mound came just a few days after Niese returned from New York and an MRI exam -- the results came back clean.
"If you don't take a step in the wrong direction … medically, like it felt we did a lot down here last year," manager Terry Collins said Wednesday, "it feels like you've taken a huge step in the right direction. You start to feel good about your team. And that's what we want here."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com.