PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres are bringing left-handed reliever Joe Thatcher along slowly this spring, as his appearance Tuesday night against the Giants was just his fourth in Cactus League play.
This isn't necessarily because Thatcher had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in October, but more because the role he holds for the team doesn't require lengthy appearances.
"Arm-wise, for what I do, I don't need to build up the big pitch count," Thatcher said. "Toward the end of spring, I'll start throwing more and getting used to being available every day."
Since 2009, only current reliever Luke Gregerson (290 appearances) and former closer Heath Bell (199) have pitched in more games for the Padres than Thatcher, who has 190 appearances over that span.
Thatcher, who overcame a rough start to his Major League career, has become one of the most reliable LOOGY -- Lefty One-Out Guy -- relievers in the National League.
Since 2009, left-handed hitters have a .182 average against him. Overall, opponents are hitting just .221 against him. Thatcher has a 2.66 ERA during that stretch, including three seasons where he eclipsed the 50-game mark.
"He's made a lot of strides in a number of areas. One thing he's been able to do, especially the last few years, is perform pretty well against left and right hitters, especially left," said San Diego manager Bud Black. "We've seen the more consistent strike. When he's needed to throw a strike, he has. He's done pretty well against some of the best left-handed hitters in the league the last few years."
In 2012, Thatcher had a 3.41 ERA in 55 games and likely would have surpassed his career high for games (65 in 2010) had he not pitched through a nagging knee issue that eventually required surgery following the season.
Thatcher pitched with soreness in the knee and then felt something out of the ordinary while making a warm-up throw at AT&T Park against the Giants on July 25.
"The next day, I couldn't walk, so I knew something was wrong," he said.
Thatcher rested the knee for over a month with an eye on having arthroscopic surgery in October, just one week after the regular season concluded.
But before all that, Thatcher wanted to make it a point to get the knee in game shape so that he could finish the season where he started it -- on the mound.
He returned on Sept. 1 and posted a 3.38 ERA the rest of the way.
"We were playing good baseball and kind of got back in the race a little," Thatcher said. "I wanted to be part of that. It wasn't easy. But it really only hurt when I ran. But I felt it was important to prove that I could be counted on."
Thatcher had surgery in San Diego on Oct. 10 to repair the damaged knee tendon. More than that, they discovered what was causing Thatcher additional pain -- a broken bone chip had dislodged and worked its way into the damaged tendon. He wore a brace for a month.
"But everything feels healthy now," Thatcher said. "The knee feels good. I wasn't able to run until two or so weeks before Spring Training, so I had to get caught up."
This season, Thatcher is intent on serving the Padres from start to finish, much like he did in 2009-10, when he appeared in 117 games. It's a far cry from 2008 when he had an 8.42 ERA in 25 games.
"It took me awhile to get established," said Thatcher, 31. "I was the guy going up and down for a year and a half, maybe over a dozen times."
That isn't unlike the path many of his younger teammates will travail to get to the Major Leagues. It was nearly six years ago when the Padres dealt reliever Scott Linebrink to the Brewers at midseason for three players, including Thatcher.
Of his current Padres teammates, only third baseman Chase Headley and pitcher Tim Stauffer have been around longer.
"I love playing for [Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley]," Thatcher said. "I love it here. I can't imagine being anywhere else."