SURPRISE, Ariz. —The key moment in Gil Meche's recovery from a year plagued by back-and-shoulder miseries came in November on a Texas golf course.
It didn't hurt to play.
"In the previous offseason," he said, "I wasn't able to play golf because when I would go to swing, I would notice from the (body) rotation that I would get a little tight the next day.
"I played a round last November. When I realized how good I felt, I started playing every 10 days or two weeks. I never had any problems with it. So I knew what I was doing was definitely benefiting my body.
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"When I started throwing, it was the same thing. I didn't feel anything. To this day, I haven't felt anything in my back."
A healthy Meche ranks atop the Royals' cross-your-fingers spring list because, club officials admit, a healthy Meche is an absolute necessity in mounting any sort of challenge in the American League Central Division.
"It call comes down to our pitching," general manager Dayton Moore said. "If our pitching stays healthy, we've got a chance."
That starts with Meche.
An in-form Meche paired with Cy Young winner Zack Greinke would provide the Royals' rotation with a formidable 1-2 punch. Meche, 31, compiled a 3.82 ERA while leading all AL pitchers with 68 starts in 2007-08.
"He's been our No. 1 pitcher," manager Trey Hillman said. "Now, Zack has moved into that role, but Gil is right behind him. We need him to be effective, and we need him to stay healthy."
Meche made his first spring start Saturday in a 2-1 victory over Texas at Surprise Stadium. He permitted two hits and one walk while working two scoreless innings and, far more important, experienced no unusual tightness or soreness in his back or shoulder.
"Let's just hope that never comes up again," he said. "The work I put in, not to toot my own horn, but I did a lot of things they wanted me to do for my back to ensure that I wouldn't have any problems.
"Everything has worked out pretty well. Just as they planned, and I planned. I'm going to keep doing my routine that I've been doing for five months and, hopefully, everything stays strong."
That wasn't the case last spring when Meche validated concerns raised by that off-season golf outing by encountering problems almost immediately. He nursed the ailment through March and made his scheduled start in the season opener in Chicago.
He continued to take his regular turn through mid-June and pitched well, compiling a 3.31 ERA through 14 starts culminating in a four-hit shutout against Arizona.
"I thought, 'You know, if I can maintain what I'm doing right now,' " Meche said, "'and this (back problem) doesn't get worse, then I might be able to squeak through this year.' I was hoping I could then take care of the back stuff after the season ended."
Meche threw a career-high 132 pitches against the Diamondbacks in securing his second career shutout and — coincidence or not — his season then fell apart. He permitted 26 runs in 23 2/3 innings over his next five starts before back spasms forced him to the disabled list.
"It just kept getting a little bit worse," he said, "and I couldn't push it anymore. It got to a point where we had to shut it down and evaluate how bad everything was."
Meche returned in mid-August but made just four starts before back problems and a fatigued shoulder — possibly resulting from compensating adjustments for his sore back — ended his season.
His final numbers: a 6-10 record with a 5.09 ERA in 23 starts. That included an 8.46 ERA over his final nine starts.
"For me, personally, it was completely a lost year," Meche said. "I was coming off two great years, where I threw a lot of innings. I felt I was going to take a step up and go beyond the numbers I had so far — even though I thought they were pretty decent numbers."
Meche's shoulder healed sufficiently by late September that he could have made a few starts before the season ended. Club officials opted instead to keep him on the shelf while addressing his sore back through a new conditioning program.
"I threw some really good bullpens at the end of the season," he said. "Full speed and letting it go. I had no problems then. So I was pretty pleased. I knew the back program that I had to do, and I did that throughout the off-season."
That November day on the golf course suggested the program is working. This spring continues to produce positive signs.
"The team we had leaving camp last year, we were pretty confident," Meche said. "That's what was disappointing. I know every team says they feel confident when they leave camp. And you should think that way. But that's really how we felt.
"I feel we're almost in the same spot again. They've been talking about this team being pitching-and-defensive oriented. For the starters, that means we just have to do our job. I think we'll go a long way if we stay healthy."
Crow sharp _ Aaron Crow, a 2009 first-round draft pick, pitched two scoreless innings and struck out three in his Kansas City debut Saturday.
Crow allowed a double to Chris Davis in the fourth, but retired Toby Hall on a fly and struck out Matt Brown to end the inning.