KANSAS CITY, Missouri — Nick Swisher bounced through the visitors clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, giddy as a schoolboy, unable contain the smile on his face after seeing his name on the Cleveland lineup card.
"Happy opening day!" he exclaimed.
It was hard to tell whether Swisher was more thrilled to be playing in a big league park again or simply playing pain-free for the first time in ages.
Swisher had operations last August on both knees, prematurely ending his year. He spent the first month of this season on the disabled list, then had a brief rehab assignment at Triple-A Columbus before he was activated for Tuesday night's series opener against the Royals.
Swisher was the designated hitter and batting sixth in the lineup.
"It's just exciting for me. It's been a long journey, a lot longer than I expected," Swisher said. "To be standing here, best shape of my life — ready to go, ready to help the team."
Swisher, who is making $15 million this season, hit just .208 with eight homers and 42 RBIs in 97 games a year ago. A big reason for the downturn in production was his aching knees, which affected his balance, his power — well, just about everything.
"It's a lot easier to hit when you've got some legs under you," he said.
That seemed to hold true in Columbus, where the former All-Star outfielder went 9 for 24 with a homer, two doubles and five RBIs in six games. He played primarily right field but took some fly balls in left, and reported no knee pain while tracking anything down.
Indians manager Terry Francona said he'll probably have Swisher serve as DH more often than usual early in his return, but he also won't hesitate to put Swisher in the outfield.
"I've watched every video of every move he's made," Francona said. "And I told him, 'When we activate you, you're activated.' And he said, 'I'm ready.'"
The Indians optioned outfielder Tyler Holt to Columbus in a corresponding roster move.
Francona also got some positive injury news from catcher Yan Gomes, who is on the DL after spraining a ligament in his right knee. Gomes has been hitting for a while, but took another big step in his rehab Tuesday when he threw from a crouch to second base.
"We're at the point right now to see how far I can squat," Gomes said. "I want to get to the point where I'm not worried about getting down."
Gomes, who hit .278 with 21 homers and 74 RBIs last season, hurt his knee the Tigers' Rajai Davis slid into him in a game April 11. At the time, the Indians thought that Gomes could be out up to eight weeks, but Francona said that he is ahead of schedule.
"He's had nothing but positive steps. I don't know what else to say. This kid is just attacking his rehab," Francona said. "He's everything you want in a player and the way he handles rehab is no different from anything else."