Though slowed, Hammonds shows he's on way back

SIDELIGHT

June 21, 1994|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,Sun Staff Writer

The spring isn't entirely back in Jeffrey Hammonds' step, and the swings, while potent, aren't as lethal as they've been.

But two plays from Sunday's 10-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins indicate that the Orioles' prodigy is on the way back.

In the third inning Sunday, Hammonds, toting a lightweight -- but still bulky -- knee brace on his right leg, ran hard into the gap in left-center and dived to try to snag a drive by Scott Leius.

Five innings later, it took a supreme effort from Alex Cole to rob Hammonds of an extra-base hit against the center-field fence.

Neither effort was ultimately successful, but they served notice that Hammonds, who returned to the club Friday from a six-week stay on the disabled list with a right knee strain, isn't going to baby himself while he gets back into top form.

"When I came off the field [after the game], one of the reporters asked me if I was OK," said Hammonds. "I smiled. What was I supposed to do [on Leius' drive]? Take a jab step and let it go? I have to play this way. That's the only way I know."

Said Orioles manager Johnny Oates: "I thought there was no play on that ball. I thought it was to the wall. He covered a lot of ground."

For the time being, Hammonds will wear the knee brace at the request of the team's medical staff, even though it takes a bite out of the rookie's great speed.

"I asked him, 'What's the difference between a cast and that thing?' " said Oates. "There can't be much difference. The thing you have to remember is Jeffrey at 90 percent is better than most of us at 100."

Said Hammonds: "I feel good. It's just a matter of going out there and getting back into the routine. It will take about 30 or 40 swings."

Last night it only took two swings for him to get two more hits. He also walked in the sixth and scored the Orioles' fifth run in the 6-5 loss. He finished 2-for-3, raising his average to .323.

A healthy Hammonds, or even a reasonable facsimile, would provide a serious and timely kick-start to an Orioles offense that has been flagging of late, save for two mini-explosions in the Minnesota series.

Hammonds, who was batting .326 before he was placed on the disabled list on May 10, had supplanted Mike Devereaux in the second spot in the batting order. And although Chris Sabo has secured that spot, Hammonds could well move up from hitting eighth or ninth if his bat heats up.

"I'm not expecting anything less than the best. I'm not going to take it easy," said Hammonds. "My goal is to get back to where I was before I got hurt and surpass that."

The Orioles would like that, too, but they are understandably wary. After all, Hammonds is just now returning from his third, and longest, stint on the disabled list since he was called up last June.

They likely would have preferred that Hammonds, who did a short stay at extended spring training in Sarasota, Fla., had gone on a minor-league rehabilitation assignment, but Devereaux's hamstring pull moved up the timetable.

"I expressed to the team that I was ready physically," said Hammonds. "Technically [yesterday] would have been the day that I would have been out there, so I'm a little early, but I'm ready."

Said Oates: "We wouldn't have brought him back if we didn't think he was ready. I don't think he's in any pain at all and we're not hurting him, so we'll let him play."

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