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RYAN TAKES SWEET TIME IN SUCCESSFUL RETURN

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Nolan Ryan took 72 days off before returning to the mound. Once he got there, he took his own sweet time.

Ryan knew his track record of first games back from the disabled list wasn't a good one: 1-4 with a 7.97 ERA since joining the Texas Rangers in 1989.So entering Monday night's comeback against the Milwaukee Brewers, Ryan decided to slow down. His patience, focus and concentration paid off with two first-inning strikeouts and a ton of confidence that carried throughout the night.

"I just wanted to make sure I didn't have a long first inning and get into a streak where I didn't lose my rhythm," Ryan said after the Rangers' 5-3 victory, the 321st of his career. "I wanted to establish my pitches so that no first inning situation would dictate the outcome of my performance."

In a way, it did. But only in a positive way.

Ryan opened his first start since May 7 with a swinging strikeout - what else? - of Milwaukee leadoff hitter Darryl Hamilton, who entered the game as the American League's fourth-best hitter.

Robin Yount chased a high pitch, but he fought it the other way for a double to right. That's what eventual Hall of Fame hitters do against guys they'll be seeing in Cooperstown.

Next up was Greg Vaughn, who saw mostly hard stuff. The Brewers' lone All-Star ended up flying out.

Then came former Ranger Kevin Reimer, who cost Ryan several victories last season with atrocious fielding. He saw mostly change-ups and quickly became strikeout victim No. 2.

When Ryan went back for the second inning, he had the comfort of a 1-0 lead provided by a Julio Franco homer. Ryan gave up another double that inning, but also made Tom Brunansky his third strikeout victim of the night - this one looking.

By the time he was pulled with two outs in the sixth, Ryan had allowed only three hits - all doubles - and had six strikeouts to up his record total to 5,684. Hamilton and Brunansky each went down twice.

Ryan, also the all-time walk leader, only had one base on balls, throwing 57 strikes and 34 balls overall. He was clocked at a high of 96 in the fourth and he averaged 94 mph in his last 22/3 innings, up 1 mph from the first three.

Ryan credited his success to a long recovery and a deliberate first inning.

"Normally, I don't pitch well when I come back from an extended layoff like this. So I really took my time in the first inning. I wanted to make sure I got through the inning without digging myself a hole," he said.

Rangers rookie manager Kevin Kennedy, who was able to write Ryan's name in the lineup for only the fourth time this year, noticed that Ryan was properly pacing himself.

"Getting through the first inning was the key," Kennedy said. "He showed good bite with his curveball. That really keeps his fastball difficult to hit.

"Everyone was upbeat in the dugout before the game, and they were even more pumped after his two strikeouts in the first."

Ryan, who admitted after the game that three weeks ago he wasn't sure if he'd ever be back, said his curveball was his best pitch, followed by the heater and then the change.

Encouraged by the performance, Ryan hopes he can be a key part of the Rangers' run for their first AL West title. Monday's victory put them two games behind the Chicago White Sox.

"I hope to start every fifth day," said Ryan, whose next scheduled start is Sunday against Toronto. "My goal is to take some of the pressure off the bullpen. I'd like to get where I could go seven or eight innings."

He will, as long as he takes it slowly.