SAN FRANCISCO -- Alex Wood finished his warm-up pitches and walked slowly back to the dugout at Oracle Park, an oversized black jacket pulled over his shoulders. It was the same pregame routine Wood took every five games for the first five months of the season, and it might be just a few more days before he gets to do it for a game that counts.
Wood was walking back to the dugout to prepare for a simulated game, one that went so well that the veteran left-hander could rejoin the rotation as soon as Saturday.
Wood hasn't pitched since August 26, a game the Giants won in New York in part because of his strong work. The night before his next scheduled start, he woke up at 4 a.m. feeling sick. He tested positive for COVID-19 the next morning and spent a week in bed fighting a fever and other symptoms, but the recovery process has ramped up over the last week.
Wood took two huge steps this week, throwing a bullpen session on Monday and then 21 pitches on Wednesday. He said his body and arm feel good.
"I was really pleasantly surprised with how I felt on Monday," he said. "I thought it was going to smoke me pretty good and I came out of it pretty solidly, and today was good. I thought my stuff was pretty good."
Manager Gabe Kapler did, too. Wood threw 21 pitches to rehabbing position players Donovan Solano and Alex Dickerson, and if he feels good physically the next couple of days, he could slide back into the rotation Saturday against the Braves. That would put him behind Kevin Gausman and Logan Webb down the stretch, and more importantly, would eliminate one of the two bullpen games the Giants have been using every turn.
"He's an important starter for us. When he's ready to be back in our rotation it's a really good thing for us as a group," Kapler said. "It's not the easiest thing to get through with three starters and the sooner we have Woody available for us, the better. That means getting him into a game as soon as he's ready for that."
San Francisco Giants
The Giants -- who are starting Dominic Leone for the second time in three games on Wednesday -- have fared well with their bullpen strategy, but it's not ideal this late in the year, and they do need four healthy starters in October. Their other option, Johnny Cueto, played catch for the first time since going on the IL, but the calendar is working against him.
For all that Wood had to deal with after contracting the virus, his arm did get a break, something that's rare this time of year. He said it was a rough stretch, though, with his wife also coming down with COVID-19. Wood declined to discuss his vaccination status when asked.
Wood's focus right now is on returning to the mound, something he never doubted would happen this month. He said it was a matter of "when, not if" he would return this season, and now the key is overcoming the fatigue that still lingers in his body after a lengthy stay in bed.
Wood was cleared to return to the ballpark in time to take part in Monday's clinch celebration. If all goes according to plan, he'll be built up enough to contribute normally when the Giants get to October.
"This is the funnest time of the year," he said. "To be in the hunt, to clinch a playoff berth, to be right in the hunt for a division title, there's just nothing better than that time of year. Our season is just so long, it's longer than any season in professional sports, and so to get to this point and be where we are is really special. To have an opportunity to win the division after the Dodgers have won it for eight straight years and go to the playoffs, you couldn't ask for a better time.
"I'm happy I'll be back soon and get to keep contributing and hopefully finish this thing out and head to the postseason with some confidence and ready to go."