Key's shoulder, performance painful Physical ache won't leave

pitcher survives 'bad day'

July 31, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

DETROIT -- Two months of waiting, pain likened to a "migraine of the shoulder," cortisone shots and rehabilitation behind him, the day that Jimmy Key and the Orioles had awaited finally arrived yesterday against the Detroit Tigers.

For Key, making his first start since May 20, his anticipation quickly turned to frustration. The pitcher who left two months before did not return. The Tigers reached Key for three runs and nine base runners in three difficult innings. Though the damage could have been worse -- the Orioles won, 6-4, behind the bullpen's six innings of three-hit relief -- Key separated himself from a clubhouse celebrating a three-game sweep.

"It wasn't good," he said. "I had expected more."

An inflamed left rotator cuff put Key on the disabled list May 21. Rather than shut himself down for the rest of the season, Key became immersed in an aggressive rehabilitation that included several cortisone injections, a five-inning simulated game pitched during the Orioles' last homestand and an uplifting six-inning rehab start at Single-A Frederick last Friday. Until yesterday, feedback had been positive.

"In Frederick I was throwing very good. Today was totally different than that," he said. "It was a bad day. Hopefully, next time will be close to where I've been when I've thrown on the side."

The Orioles gave him a 4-0 lead after 1 1/2 innings. However, Key labored through two scoreless innings before the Tigers caught him for three runs in the third.

"Whether it was mechanical thing today or what, I don't know," he said. "At least we won the game. I can write this day off. There's a lot of room for improvement there."

Pitching coach Mike Flanagan immediately became alarmed when Key warmed up "flat." Key lives on the corners. Yesterday his assortment frequently strayed six inches wide into the batter's box. Constantly pitching from the stretch, he never became comfortable. His typically efficient pace became labored.

"It's been a long time. It's not like riding a bike. If the season ended today, you took two weeks off and came back to throw, you'd be lost," Flanagan said.

Key walked two hitters in the third inning and avoided a third when plate umpire John Hirschbeck gave him a generous strike call on a 3-1 pitch to Geronimo Berroa. Berroa then hit into a fielder's choice to end the inning.

Two walks and shortstop Mike Bordick's none-out error reloaded the bases in the second, but Key somehow escaped on a comebacker and a fly out. Three consecutive hits -- a single, triple and double -- followed by a two-out single created the three-run third. Key left having thrown 80 pitches, five more than typically expected in five innings.

"I just go out with the mind-set of pitching one inning at a time. That's the approach I've taken in every start I've ever made. You try to find some sort of rhythm and go with it. I could never get it today. It just wasn't there," he said. "I'm not the kind of guy who goes out there looking for a shutout. I just like to let the game flow. Even though I got out of the first two innings, obviously they weren't good and it finally caught up to me in the third. I never got anything going at all."

Key won't say his shoulder feels fine because it doesn't. He still pitches with an ache that will follow him the rest of this season. A pending free agent, he doesn't project his career beyond the next two months. He has admitted that an "aggressive" rehabilitation may cause him to blow out the rotator cuff, ending his career. If so, he claims there are no regrets.

Pressed for a positive, Key reached way back. "I've gotten the first one out of the way," he said.

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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