MESA, Ariz. (AP) _ Like a lot of other young superstars-to-be, Jeremi Gonzalez was smart enough to know he had a real gift, and hardheaded enough that he didn't need anyone to tell him what to do with it.

The Chicago Cubs would tell the right-hander to lose weight, and he'd eat another hamburger. Hey, he was winning ball games, lots of them. What did an extra pound or two matter?

But when his right elbow gave out in the middle of a game last July and doctors told him to forget about playing for the rest of the season, Gonzalez grew up in a hurry. Suddenly, that advice that had gone in one ear and out the other started making sense.

``The first thing I thought was, `What am I doing? Don't play?' I know I'm young, but (a year) is a long time,'' he said. ``When the doctors told me it would only be six or seven months, I thought, `I'm going to work hard to come back.'''

And the hard work is paying off. Originally expected to be out as long as a year after having ulnar nerve surgery last August on his pitching elbow, Gonzalez is on track to pitch for the Cubs in mid-May. He might even have been ready for opening day, but a case of the flu set him back two weeks, trainer Dave Tumbas said.

He threw batting practice Friday for the first time since surgery.

``I was nervous a little bit,'' he admitted. ``But after I threw the first pitch, it was like before. Everything's coming back.''

That's some of the best news the Cubs have had this spring. With Kerry Wood out with a season-ending elbow injury, Chicago is looking for help, and Gonzalez has the talent to make a difference.

As a rookie in 1997, he was the club's winningest pitcher (11-9) despite spending the first two months of the season at Triple-A Iowa. He pitched a four-hit shutout in his sixth start, and had a five-game winning streak in the middle of the summer. In a four-start span early last year, he went 3-1 with a complete game shutout and a 1.86 ERA.

There was a problem with Gonzalez: his work ethic.

``Personally, he's always been a real fun guy to be around,'' manager Jim Riggleman said. ``But I think he realizes he was taking some things for granted.''

Gonzalez smiles when he hears this.

``This is my first time working so hard,'' he said. ``Extra work. Every day. Before, it was tough. Now I love it.''

And he's not just talking. Riggleman had been telling him for a couple of years he needed to drop a few pounds from his 6-foot-2, 218-pound frame. It never happened.

``It was like, `I'm fat. I'm getting people out, so I'll stay fat,''' Riggleman said.

But Gonzalez hit the weights and changed his diet while he was rehabilitating. Hamburgers became a thing of the past. Now he munches on salads.

He lost so much weight _ he's down to 204 now _ he had to buy new clothes.

His breaking ball and fastball are better, he said, and he's got a changeup now, too. After watching his batting practice workout, pitching coach Marty DeMerritt couldn't praise him enough.

``Marvelous. Absolutely outstanding,'' DeMerritt said. ``This is kind of a minor miracle considering he was supposed to be out for a year.''

Gonzalez will likely stay in Mesa for extended spring training, and then do a rehabilitation assignment in the minors. Finally, after that, it should be back to Chicago.

``I feel good, I feel proud of me,'' Gonzalez said.