Before, when Scott Mathieson just wanted to play catch, it required soaking his right arm in a hot tub for 20 minutes and numerous arm stretches to prepare. Then, after he was finished tossing the ball, he had to ice the arm for 20 more minutes.

"It's not like that anymore," Mathieson said this week from Clearwater, Fla., where he lives and works out. "I go out, do my thing, and I'm done. I go home, and my arm doesn't bother me. It's definitely a relief."

Mathieson is trying a comeback few pitchers have made. (Eric Gagne and former Phillie Steve Ontiveros are two examples.) Since 2006, he has had three operations on his elbow in three years, including two Tommy John operations. Each time he attempted to come back, his arm never felt right. Each time, it resulted in another hospital stay.

Now, Mathieson is a pitcher the Phillies will watch very closely come spring training. Mathieson, who turns 26 on Feb. 27, says his goal is to make the team out of camp. And, as crazy as it would have seemed less than a year ago, it might not be such so far-fetched anymore.

"I'm pretty confident," Mathieson said. "I feel strong."

The Phillies will go to Clearwater with six spots in the bullpen presumably decided: Brad Lidge, Ryan Madson, J.C. Romero, Danys Baez, Chad Durbin, and Jose Contreras. Another spot is up for grabs, but if the injured Lidge and Romero are not ready for opening day, as many as three spots will need to be filled.

Mathieson is the most intriguing option out of a group of young pitchers that includes lefties Antonio Bastardo, Sergio Escalona and Mike Zagurski and righties David Herndon and Brian Rosenberg. Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. has said during the off-season that Mathieson will have a shot to make the team.

"We have to get our bullpen stabilized coming out of spring training," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said on Tuesday. "I say it every year - and it happens - we have somebody who always comes along, picks up, and does a pretty good job for us. I think the same thing can happen this year."

Mathieson was once a heralded prospect in the Phillies' system and made his major-league debut as a 22-year-old in 2006. He started eight games and struggled, going 1-4 with a 7.47 ERA before he injured his elbow during the first inning of a start against Atlanta on Sept. 2, 2006. Less than a month later, he had Tommy John surgery for the first time.

He pitched eight innings in the minors in 2007 before requiring ulnar-nerve transposition surgery in August. And he could not get back on the mound before realizing he needed a second Tommy John operation in May 2008.

The Phillies did not tender Mathieson following the 2008 season but had already worked out a new minor-league deal beforehand.

"I'm very lucky they're giving me a chance," Mathieson said. "They stuck with me after my last surgery and helped me through the rehab. They really put the time and effort in to get me back to where I am."

In 22 games in 2009 from low single-A to double-A, Mathieson had a 0.84 ERA in 321/3 innings. He also pitched in the Arizona Fall League with a 2.84 ERA in 122/3 innings. Mathieson said while in Arizona he developed more confidence in his change-up. He said he threw his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90s - the velocity that first made him a can't-miss prospect.

And his arm felt great.

"Even last year during the season, it was 20 minutes of holding my arm in the hot tub before," Mathieson said. "And then doing all the stretches. It was just a lot of prep before going out just to throw. That part is hopefully behind me."

He has spent the off-season working out with Zagurski, who is also rehabbing after Tommy John surgery, and Shawn Fcasni, the Phillies' minor-league strength and conditioning coordinator.

Mathieson and Zagurski play catch five times a week. To prepare, they each ride a treadmill for 10 minutes. No hot tub. No extra stretches. Just playing catch like old times.

And then they go home.

"It's pretty rare - most guys who have a second Tommy John, that's usually the end of their career," Mathieson said. "For me, I'm hoping it's just the beginning."

Contact staff writer Matt Gelb at 215-854-2928 or mgelb@phillynews.com.