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Steve Gardner,USA TODAY Sports

SAN FRANCISCO - As part of Major League Baseball's association with the Welcome Back Veterans program, the first pitch for Thursday's World Series Game 2 was thrown out by Marine Corporal Nicholas Kimmel.

"It's like a dream," he said in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY Sports. "Being in the Marines and having to do so much stuff over and over ... the nerves kinda go away."

Kimmel, a former high school baseball star at Moses Lake (Wash.) High School, lost both legs and his left arm in an explosion during his second tour of duty in Afghanistan.

He showed off his outfielder's arm as he fired a strike to the Giants' designated first-pitch catcher, reliever Sergio Romo. But perhaps the biggest thrill was sharing the mound with Giants Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays.

Mays is a U.S. Army veteran, who missed most of the 1952 and all of the 1953 seasons to serve in the Korean War.

"He took the ball and said I've got to rub it up with some dirt," Kimmel recalled. "He rubbed it up and signed it for me, so that was pretty cool."

Still undergoing treatment at Navy Medical Center in San Diego, Kimmel enjoyed season tickets to San Diego Padres games this season through the Strikeouts for Troops program established by Giants pitcher and Game 1 winner Barry Zito.

Zito and several other major league pitchers donate money for every strikeout they record during the season and the proceeds go toward helping wounded soldiers at military hospitals around the country.

A Red Sox fan growing up, Kimmel says baseball has helped him live a more normal life, despite his disability.

"It's not that I had any crazy PTSD or anything, but for me the Strikeouts for Troops is more of a way to get out in public and enjoy something that I enjoyed before - baseball - without having to worry about a bunch of people staring at me."

At the games, he gets to go on the field during batting practice and he says he's developed friendships with several players, including Zito, Chicago White Sox pitcher Jake Peavy, Padres outfielder Mark Kotsay and Diamondbacks pitcher Brad Ziegler.

"All those guys are friends to me now," Kimmel said. "You grow up thinking these guys are superheroes ... They're just people. Now they're my pals."

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