SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- He can grow his beard down to his navel and wear all sorts of outlandish costumes, but when the subject is baseball, Brian Wilson has no affectations.The Giants reliever is exceedingly serious about his craft. So when Wilson was asked Monday to explain last year's dip in his performance, he responded the way he pitches -- direct and true. Wilson was hurt a lot worse than most people knew. "Probably pitching with a hurt elbow the whole year and a bad hip," Wilson said regarding his statistical downturn. Intent on remaining healthy this season, Wilson continued his gradual approach Monday. He threw from a bullpen mound at about 75-80 percent of his usual force, protecting the inflamed right elbow that limited him to four appearances after Aug. 7. Manager Bruce Bochy estimated that Wilson should be ready to appear in exhibitions during the second week of the Cactus League season, giving him sufficient time to prepare for the April 6 regular-season opener at Arizona. "I feel like I'm right on schedule," Wilson said. "... As far as [being] pain-free, yes. No ailments, no tweaks or any inflammation." That's encouraging for the Giants. Though five of their relievers -- Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez, Guillermo Mota and Sergio Romo -- each saved at least one game last year, none has extensive closing experience. By contrast, Wilson, who has 169 career saves, can become the Giants' all-time leader in that category with one big year. He trails only Robb Nen (206) and Rod Beck (199). Wilson's bullpen brethren believe that he'll be ready for Opening Day. That wasn't the case last year, when a strained left oblique forced him to miss the season's first five games. "He's the anchor," Lopez said. "If we need to do things that take the load off of him early, I think we can do that. But I think he's going to be ready to go. And I think everybody else in the bullpen believes that he's ready to go." "Willie's a hard worker," Affeldt said. "If anybody's going to go against the odds, if there are any, it's going to be him." Wilson, who turns 30 on March 16, certainly goes against the grain at times. He dressed as Celtics great Larry Bird for an NBA 2K12 advertisement, donned a spandex tuxedo for last year's ESPY Awards and outfitted himself in a full Louisiana State University football uniform to watch his former school face Alabama in their showdown last Nov. 5. Given Wilson's accomplishments since becoming San Francisco's full-time closer in late 2007, many of the Giants and their fans probably believe he tucks Superman's cape underneath his baseball uniform. His ailments proved that he's far from indestructible. Yet it never occurred to Wilson to take a break last year, except for his pair of stints on the disabled list. "A lot of people in the locker room would be OK with that, but I'm not OK with that. I'm not OK with taking days off," Wilson said. Overall, Wilson remained productive. He recorded 36 saves in 41 chances and made his third National League All-Star team. But he clearly lacked his usual dominance. His per-nine-inning ratios for strikeouts (8.8) and walks (5.1) were his worst for a full season. His throwing session Monday represented a step toward self-improvement. Wilson called his 45-pitch stint a "mere check on the checklist." He didn't throw hard, but he threw mostly strikes. Bullpen catcher Bill Hayes, Wilson's batterymate, barely had to move. "The more he threw, I thought the better he got as far as location and spin on the ball," Hayes said. "He had better rotation on the fastball and cutter. The ball was doing what it was supposed to do." Said Bochy, "He should feel good about where he's at."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.