HOUSTON (AP) – Jeff Bagwell isn’t the type who needs motivation.

Still, a little extra incentive never hurts – and that’s exactly what the Houston Astros’ recent surge into playoff contention has provided him in his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery.

Bagwell has been out of the lineup since May 4, when he was batting only .250 with three homers in 88 at-bats. When rest didn’t alleviate the excruciating pain in his arthritic right shoulder, he made one more attempt to extend his career: an operation in early June to loosen he bones that were rubbing against each other.

There were no guarantees that he’d ever play again, much less this season.

Now Bagwell is about halfway through a comeback that could rival what his teammates have been doing in his absence.

Since sinking to 15-30 in the weeks between Bagwell’s last at-bat and his surgery, the Astros have gone 45-21. They went into an off-day Monday with a two-game lead for the NL wild card.

“I’m happy with the way things are going, but I wish I was playing,” the 37-year-old Bagwell said during the last homestand. “I watch this and think maybe I can help at the end of the season if I can get better. Maybe I can be a boost off the bench.”

He’s certainly making progress.

Last week, the four-time All-Star with 449 career home runs graduated from swatting soft tosses and began hitting live pitching. He even did it for several days in a row, all while on the road. It was his first trip since his procedure, another sign that he’s working his way back to being more than someone who gets on the field only before games, hanging out with his friends during batting practice.

Astros general manager Tim Purpura is being cautiously optimistic. As much as he loves the idea of having the franchise’s career leader in homers, RBIs, walks and extra-base hits to pinch-hit during a pennant race, he also realizes there’s a chance Bagwell never makes it back into the batter’s box.

“He’s truly only taken baby steps. He’s only on his toes now,” Purpura said. “There’s no road map for this. The thought of having him back in September is pretty appealing to us, but he’s got a long way to go.”

Bagwell is still in pain, though some of it could be related to his surgery, therapy and return to swinging a bat. He’s hoping time and rehab will ease some of it. Then he’ll have to decide whether he can tolerate what’s left and whether his rebuilt shoulder will allow him to hit the way his pride demands.

Regaining strength in atrophied muscles is only part of his challenge. He also must learn how to swing a new way – or, rather, his old way, before he developed all sorts of awkward motions and bad habits trying to ease the pain. Until pulling himself from the lineup, things had gotten so bad that the 1994 NL MVP couldn’t even keep both hands on the bat through an entire swing.

“My shoulder is in such disarray inside that I’m always going to have problems, until I get it fixed,” said Bagwell, referring to the shoulder replacement surgery he’ll have once he retires. “Part of therapy is to try to fix the muscles so that some of the pain does go away.”

Throwing is another long-term objective and, ultimately, what could determine whether he returns next season for the final year of his contract. Even if activated later this season, it’s unlikely he would play first base.

“I’m happy where I’m at,” Bagwell said recently. “Am I baseball ready? No. It’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster and I’ve rode it both ways.”

Craig Biggio has watched Bagwell play through the pain for years. He figures if anyone can make it back from this kind of injury, it’s Bagwell.

“He could’ve said to heck with it and gotten a new shoulder, but he didn’t want the game to be taken away from him,” Biggio said. “He’s doing all he can to get back. He’s a hard worker, a consummate pro.”

AP-ES-08-08-05 1528EDT

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