PHOENIX -- Jason Schmidt told them so.

Before doctors operated on his labrum, bursa sac and biceps tendon in June 2007, he told them the pain he felt was located somewhere else altogether, in the acromio-clavicular joint, where the collarbone meets the scapula (shoulder blade) at the top of the shoulder.

Armed with the most sophisticated diagnostic equipment known to sports medicine, doctors told Schmidt to stick to pitching and they would handle the surgery.

But Schmidt was right. The pain persisted after the first operation and despite several false starts on the rehab trail, he never made it back to the Major Leagues last year.

It wasn't until doctors removed the arthritic tip of the clavicle last September that Schmidt noticed "instant relief." Now, he said, he wants his starting job back and he's physically capable of doing it.

"Last year, I had to talk myself into it. I felt all right, but I wasn't the same," he said. "Now, it feels better than it did. There are still a lot of unknowns. But it's definitely night and day from last year."

Schmidt was the first Dodgers pitcher on a mound when they gathered for bullpen sessions on Saturday at the club's new Camelback Ranch-Glendale complex, the lack of hesitation symbolic of his renewed optimism.

"There's no stretching, no heat pack, no message. He can feel natural again and that's a great sign," said pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, who monitored Schmidt's session. "A pitcher knows how his arm feels. Now, he's working without any maintenance. There's a lot of freedom for him to just go out there and be one of the guys again."

Manager Joe Torre indicated the 36-year-old right-hander is the favorite for the fifth-starting spot in the rotation. The cattle call of competitors includes Eric Stults, Claudio Vargas, Ramon Troncoso, Shawn Estes, Eric Milton and possibly Jeff Weaver, James McDonald and Scott Elbert.

"I'd like to believe that," Torre said of Schmidt being his fifth starter. "You don't say for sure, because he hasn't competed in so long. But I hope he can be that guy because of his experience. He's got to work his way back, not earn his way, but work his way to be comfortable competing again. He seems to be fine."

It's Year 2 of the comeback, but Schmidt is starting this one with something else he didn't have last spring: a smile.

Schmidt said he wants to be on the same throwing program as any healthy pitcher in camp, although he concedes that management will be careful not to push him too far too soon, as Honeycutt has said. Schmidt has thrown off a mound five times in the past two weeks.

"From Day 1, I feel I can keep up," he said. "I want to get out there and let my kids see me pitch. I have a 5-year-old who's never seen me pitch before. That's a big motivation right there."

Danny Ardoin, who caught Schmidt's bullpen session on Saturday, said he noticed a difference from a year ago.

"He had finish on his fastball," said Ardoin. "There was confidence in his delivery. The velocity, he won't know until he faces hitters."

While Schmidt can say "I told you so," he understands why doctors did what they did.

"They knew about the A/C, but when they went in and found the labrum and the tears, they had to fix those," he said. "They knew there was change in the A/C, but they felt it would be too much to come back from if they did it all at once. Looking back, they still would have done the same thing. You can't find that other stuff and not fix it."

Of course, that decision also might have wasted a year of his career.

"That's really hard to say," Schmidt said. "You've got to trust the doctors. This is what they do every day. They felt that was the right thing to do. They thought to do it all at once would create too much instability."

Schmidt said he keeps getting signs that his shoulder is healthy. He can play long toss "without needing to take three weeks off afterward," he said. But questions remain, even for him.

"Is the stuff going to be the same? I don't know," he said. "If it isn't, can I locate? Last year, I didn't have the stuff and I couldn't locate. I was fighting everything."