SAN DIEGO -- Chase Headley strode out of the batting cage on the field at Petco Park with a big smile on his face hours before Wednesday night's game against the Dodgers. And that couldn't have been better news for the Padres.
"I feel like I'm in baseball mode, not rehab mode," he said. "And that's good."
The San Diego third baseman has been recuperating from a fractured left thumb he sustained sliding into second base during a Cactus League game on March 17. Just barely more than three weeks since the injury, Headley could be heading out for a Minor League rehab as soon as this weekend, manager Bud Black told MLB.com after the batting session.
"We need this guy back," said Black, stating the obvious. "If he continues to make progress, he should be able to go out in four or five days, by this weekend, or Monday the latest."
Meanwhile, the Dodgers are still watching the slow progress of shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who tore ligaments in his right thumb diving for a grounder on March 19 in San Francisco during the game in which his Dominican team defeated Puerto Rico to win the World Baseball Classic.
Ramirez underwent surgery, and even though he said on Tuesday that he's a few weeks ahead of schedule, his hand is still in a cast. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly believes it's going to take every bit of the eight-week prognosis from the date of the injury before he returns. Headley, meanwhile, was supposed to be out four to six weeks, and barring any setbacks, is on schedule.
"I know he wants to come back quick and wants to get out there," Mattingly said of Ramirez, who is throwing, despite the cast, and staying in shape. "But usually those kinds of injuries are always healed within the time frame. There's a reason why they say eight weeks, because it usually takes that long."
Call it the tale of two thumbs, but they are actually much different appendages and situations. The Dodgers, with a payroll of $230 million and a lineup chocked with All-Stars, can afford to wait until a healthy Ramirez gets back in tip-top shape. The Padres are treading water without Headley, and to a lesser extent, catcher Yasmani Grandal, who is currently serving a 50-game drug suspension and is not eligible to return until May 28.
Headley, 28, had a breakout season for the Padres in 2012. He led the National League with 115 RBIs and the team with 31 homers. He batted .286 and won the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove Awards.
While the Yankees can play .500 ball with $84.1 million worth of players on the disabled list in Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson, the Padres' payroll is going to top out at $70 million this year, said one team executive. They can ill afford to lose anybody, particularly a young switch-hitter of Headley's credentials.
Three of the four Yankees could return around May 1. A-Rod is still hoping to be back at some point later in the season from left hip surgery.
The Padres need Headley yesterday, but even after hitting from both sides of the plate against live pitching on Wednesday for the first time in more than three weeks, he said he just isn't ready.
"No, no," he said. "I've got to do some other things to get the confidence, to get the feel back. They're not holding me back. We're on the same page. Everyone wants me to be back: the coaching staff, the training staff. But we also don't want to do something stupid and re-injure it or put the team at a disadvantage when I'm not ready to play. Today is the first day I hit on the field, so I wouldn't be ready. But I don't think we're a long ways off."
Headley had X-rays on the thumb on Monday. And though the image showed it hasn't completely healed or even calcified, the fracture is heading in the right direction. Meanwhile, the Padres went into action on Wednesday with losses in five of their first seven games. Despite scoring nine runs on Tuesday in a home-opening victory over the Dodgers, the Padres are 12th in the 15-team NL with a .224 batting average, 11th with 23 runs scored and 13th with just three homers.
In contrast, NL West rivals Colorado and Arizona are both near the top of the league, with 15 homers and 12, respectively. The Dodgers have won four of their first seven games with Ramirez on the rack. No wonder Black is so eager to get Headley back.
Because Headley had just started to hit his stride as a star player, the injury couldn't have come at a more inopportune time for the club.
"I was excited to get started this year," Headley said. "I learned a lot of things last year and progressed in ways I hadn't in my career. So this has been frustrating for me, absolutely. When you're hurt and you're not playing, it's not what you hoped for. But it's part of the game. You have to deal with it. I'll do my best to get out there as soon as I can."
For his part, Headley said that date is still a question mark. He wants to keep his departure for rehab close to the vest, adding he figured he would need four to seven games in the Minors to get his timing back. Black, though, is counting the days.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow@boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.