Key crucial to postseason drive Ailing pitcher's return set for late July at best

Inside the Orioles

June 21, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles cannot make a serious run at the postseason without a contribution from Jimmy Key.

Given that Key resides on the disabled list with what is described as inflammation of the left rotator cuff, this presents a critical problem. Key hasn't pitched since May 20 and won't pitch again until late July at the earliest. And, yes, there is a chance Key will never pitch again because the most vital part of his pitching anatomy has again betrayed him.

The Orioles know this. Key knows this. That is why the club is frantically trying to manufacture a trade for a No. 3 starter and Key is risking his remaining pitching life with what is called "exceedingly aggressive" rehabilitation.

If it works, the Orioles gain a valued starter for the stretch run. If it fails, Key begins another career.

The Orioles are caught in the middle. They cannot afford to wait until late July before exploring alternatives and are aggressively looking to acquire another starter.

"We're definitely hopeful Jimmy will be back, though there are never any guarantees. He's a big part of the club and where we want to go. He's such a valuable part of what we have here, if he's not back we would have to find someone to replace him," said assistant general manager Kevin Malone.

Even as a health question, Key could command millions to pitch next season. Ten years ago, the automatic decision would have been to shut down for the season. As is, Key's rotator cuff has been so stretched and worn by surgery and innings that he will always be one pitch away from walking off a mound for the last time.

"If I were 27, I would probably be going about it very differently," Key said. "But I'm not 27. The situation here is different."

Key is 37, a veteran rotation's most senior member, and admittedly in the twilight of a productive but injury-scarred career. He began the season 20 wins shy of 200 and trailing only Roger Clemens, Dennis Eckersley and Greg Maddux in victories among active pitchers. He has pitched in four All-Star Games and last year was selected for a fifth. He has appeared in six League Championship Series and won the clinching game in both World Series in which he has played.

Along the way Key has undergone four operations on his left shoulder, one of which cost him almost the entire 1995 season. The Orioles believed the strain of 212 1/3 innings -- the most he had thrown since 1993 -- showed late last season when Key won only four games after the All-Star break.

Key no longer concerns himself with the future, even though he is one of the Orioles' 12 pending free agents after this season.

"I'm putting everything I have into this season," he said in his Alabama lilt. "Whatever happens next year is of no concern to me right now. If I am healthy enough to pitch, fine. If not, I can live with that, too. I signed a two-year contract with the Orioles. I'm not going to sit around thinking about next year when I still might help the team this year."

Said Miller: "Jimmy's a very stable guy, both as a pitcher and as a person. He has a calming effect on our staff because you're pretty sure he's going to take you into the sixth or seventh inning. That's something we've missed a lot this year. Having him back would be a big lift."

Key tried to help May 20 when he pitched through stiffness against the New York Yankees. He lasted 5 2/3 innings, long enough to allow 12 hits and nine earned runs while experiencing mounting pain.

His concern only grew when a cortisone injection failed to ease the inflammation and pain. He's since has a second injection, traveling to Birmingham, Ala., to see Dr. James Andrews, the orthopedist who operated on Key's shoulder in 1995. Doctors still don't know the extent of his injury. To know for certain requires arthroscopic surgery, something Key has ruled out. The routine procedure would likely end his season regardless of what doctors found.

"I'm not going to have another surgery just to be able to pitch," he said. "If I need surgery to live a normal life, that's different."

Key estimates aggressive rehabilitation may leave him 12 starts, which translates to a late-July return. With him, the Orioles can live with Doug Drabek and rookie Sidney Ponson as their fourth and fifth starters. If Scott Kamieniecki returns from a mystifying nerve condition, so much the better. But if Key does not pitch for the Orioles, he pitches for nobody.

"I've gotten a lot out of my career," he said. "As long as I'm playing, I want to be effective. I'm not going to be a guy who stays around to go 4-12. I could hang on and be a left-hander who comes in to face a couple guys, but I don't want that. If I can't do what I've done my entire career, then it's over."

Pub Date: 6/21/98

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