ST. LOUIS (AP) -Mark Mulder has no idea when he might be ready to pitch again, and said the St. Louis Cardinals shouldn't count on him coming to the rescue in the second half of the season.
The left-hander, rehabbing from rotator cuff surgery last September, threw off a mound for the first time since then on Tuesday. The team has been hopeful of him returning around the All-Star break, but after the session Mulder was more pessimistic, saying there's a chance he won't be back until next season.
``It could be August, it could be September, it could be April,'' Mulder said. ``I couldn't begin to tell you when it might be.''
The Cardinals were more optimistic. Manager Tony La Russa didn't see the session but said pitching coach Dave Duncan was impressed even though Mulder told the manager it ``wasn't one of his best.''
``So that makes it even better,'' La Russa said.
The team's original estimate was a minimum of an eight-month rehab for Mulder, who was 6-7 with a 7.14 ERA in 17 starts last year. Most of 2006 he was a shell of the pitcher who had 88 wins the previous five seasons, tied for the most in the majors. He altered his delivery to compensate for impingement in his shoulder and tried to get outs with pitches in the low 80s.
Mulder, who signed a two-year, incentive-laden $13 million contract in January, is well into his ninth month since the surgery. Chris Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner, could be back in August from surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow in May.
That potentially would provide a huge boost for a team with a somewhat ragtag starting five of Braden Looper, Adam Wainwright, Brad Thompson, Kip Wells and Todd Wellemeyer.
You won't catch La Russa daydreaming about the possibilities.
``You're still looking at a lot of games without him and Chris, so I don't think you can lose your focus on trying to be competitive right now,'' La Russa said. ``When they come back, what's going to be our situation?
``You take the help when it comes, but you deal with what's available right now. The immediate goal is to be in contention when they come back.''
Mulder has been told he could need as long as 12 months to recover. That would all but count him out for this season.
``So far it's been OK, but that doesn't mean it's going to move along any faster,'' he said. ``Everybody's different, and you just don't know.
``I don't know what's going to happen so I go in, I do my work every day, and when it gets better it gets better.''
Mulder played some catch during spring training, the start of an arduous road back. Everything feels like baby steps, at least until he reflects on how much more difficult everything was a few months ago.
``The hardest thing to do is just to be patient and it feels like it never gets better,'' Mulder said. ``But when I look at myself compared to a month ago when I was here, it's a huge difference.
``And when I look at that compared to when the team left spring training, and it's a huge difference. When it's every day when I'm going into therapy and throwing, it doesn't seem like it changes. But when I look at it in the long run, it's changed a lot.''

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