By the time the Baltimore Orioles suffered a serious injury last season, they were already a solid contender in the American League East, one game behind the Toronto Blue Jays.
But that injury -- a broken wrist to catcher Chris Hoiles on a pitch by the New York Yankees' Tim Leary on June 21 -- did much to curtail the Orioles' chances of catching the Blue Jays. Hoiles missed nearly two months, and the Orioles missed him dearly.
The injury suffered Sunday by center fielder Mike Devereaux -- a partial separation of the sternoclavicular joint -- might be even more costly to the Orioles and could derail their recent rejuvenation.
Devereaux is expected to miss at least five to six weeks. He was injured when he fell on his left shoulder trying for a diving catch in the first inning of his team's 4-3 victory over the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards.
"We'll go from here. We're not going to throw in the towel," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said yesterday before the team was to leave for a six-game trip to Minnesota and Toronto, beginning tonight at the Metrodome. "We'll just have to see what happens."
With Devereaux going on the disabled list, the Orioles called up outfielder Damon Buford, 22, from the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings and promoted outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds, 21, the team's No. 1 draft choice last year, from the Double-A Bowie Baysox to replace Buford.
Though Oates wouldn't say how he planned to use Buford until speaking first with Buford and Orioles general manager Roland Hemond -- they were to meet last night in Minneapolis -- it is expected that the son of former Orioles standout and current Baysox manager Don Buford will move into the lineup, probably in center field.
"Mike Devereaux supplied a lot of running speed for us and defense," said Hemond. "Buford does that, too. He has a lot of the same type of tools."
Buford's attributes in the outfield and on the base paths -- he has eight stolen bases in nine attempts this year -- earned him Devereaux's place on the 25-man roster. The only question is his hitting.
"I've seen him make some of the best catches I've ever seen a center fielder make," said Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin. "If his bat comes around, he can be a fun player. People have compared him to Gary Pettis and Devon White in the field. Now, it's just a matter of what he'll do with his bat."
Buford is batting .313, is riding a 19-game hitting streak and had hits in 22 of his team's 23 games. Nevertheless, the Orioles had discussed other options, including Triple-A outfielder Mark Leonard, a left-handed hitter with some power (three home runs, RBI), and even Hammonds.
Asked whether there was a chance of Hammonds' making the jump from Double-A to Baltimore, Oates said: "It was discussed briefly. It [Buford's promotion] wasn't clear-cut."
If Buford becomes an everyday player in Devereaux's absence, Oates likely will have to juggle his batting order. A leadoff hitter in Rochester, Buford probably will go to the bottom of the lineup, with either Mark McLemore or Harold Reynolds moving up to Devereaux's usual No. 2 spot behind Brady Anderson.
The injury to Devereaux initially was diagnosed as a sprain to the joint that separates the sternum from the clavicle, but a CT scan taken yesterday revealed a partial separation. Devereaux will keep the area immobilized for three weeks, but he will continue to travel with the team.
Dr. Charles Silberstein, the team physician, said that Devereaux, in layman's terms, "tore ligaments of the left collarbone from the breastplate." It is an injury common to accident victims, as well as hockey and football players, but unusual for a baseball player.
"Frankly, I don't know of any baseball player who's had this happen," Silberstein said. "There's no track record with it. He's just got to be careful the next few weeks."
Aside from leading the Orioles in runs with 14, Devereaux was second in doubles (seven) and tied for second in RBI (11). Though far off the pace of last year, when he hit 24 home runs and drove in 107 runs, Devereaux remains one of the team's biggest offensive threats.
The injury comes as the Orioles and Devereaux were starting to emerge from their early-season slumber. The Orioles have won four of their past five to climb out of the basement in the American League East, and Devereaux has hit .353 in his past eight games to raise his season's average to .240.
"Definitely, that thought was running through my mind when I got hurt," Devereaux said yesterday from his home.
Another thought was occupying his mind after he hit the grass hard going for Felix Jose's sinking liner: This wasn't going to be the kind of injury he was going to be able to shake off in a couple of days. Or even weeks.
"I knew it was serious," said Devereaux. "I don't get hurt that often. I know my body well. I knew that something was drastically wrong. I heard a pop. It was weird, I landed on my shoulder, but my shoulder wasn't hurting."
It marks the second straight year that Devereaux suffered a serious injury diving for a ball. Last year, Devereaux tore ligaments in his left thumb on Oct. 1 and missed the final three games of the season.
Devereaux doesn't believe that the impact of his injury is potentially more devastating than Hoiles' was last year. Despite their terrible 5-13 start, the Orioles have apparently righted themselves.
"What are we, five games out?" said Devereaux. "I think we're sitting pretty."
Said Oates: "If the last five games are any indication of how this team is capable of playing, then I think we'll be OK. We're not the first team to have a key player injured."