Kamieniecki: `Just book me in'

After painful 1998, pitcher feels ready for return to form

January 27, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Five minutes was all it took.

Five minutes at Camden Yards on Thursday reassured Orioles manager Ray Miller that his starting rotation may be a far safer place this season given Scott Kamieniecki's return from September disk surgery.

"To me, it was a big, pleasant surprise," said Miller, who watched Kamieniecki's performance with former pitching coach Mike Flanagan. "I asked him what to do, and he said, `Just book me in and see if I can make it.' "

The rotation's invisible glue during the 1997 drive to a division championship, Kamieniecki became one of the many casualties associated with last season's 79-83 collapse. What began in May as numbness in his right hand was eventually diagnosed as a ruptured disk in his neck. The compression on his spine made it almost impossible to sleep, never mind pitch. Cabin pressure associated with flying exacerbated the pain.

"From the time it started," Kamieniecki recalled from his Michigan home, "it pretty much did nothing except get worse."

Kamieniecki, who turns 35 in April, made only 11 starts last season, just three after a three-inning appearance in Oakland May 22. He didn't win a game after April 18, pitched beyond the sixth inning only once and had more stays on the disabled list (three) than he did victories (two). Able to pitch only 54 2/3 innings, he provided little return after signing a two-year, $6.2 million contract the previous December.

"I think this year I'll choose Door No. 2," Kamieniecki quipped. "Last year definitely isn't worth repeating for a lot of reasons."

Doctors at Case Western Reserve fused the fifth and sixth vertebrae in Kamieniecki's neck by inserting a graft taken from his hip. For eight weeks after the Sept. 15 procedure, Kamieniecki was forced to wear a brace that immobilized his head and neck. To turn his head, he needed to twist his entire upper body. He said he has no residual pain, but continues to rehabilitate atrophied muscles.

"The way I felt last year, there was no way I wanted to go through that again. Certainly, I had to have something done if I was going to pitch again. It wasn't a multiple-choice test," he said.

Meanwhile, Orioles general manager Frank Wren searched in vain for another starter, preferably left-handed. After Wren insisted that landing another starter was the off-season priority, free agents such as Todd Stottlemyre and Kevin Brown stiff-armed him. Trade possibilities, such as the San Diego Padres' Joey Hamilton and the Cincinnati Reds' Denny Neagle, proved too expensive. The Padres sent Hamilton to the Toronto Blue Jays when Wren refused to include pitcher Sidney Ponson in a deal. Neagle, traded by the Atlanta Braves in November, chafes at pitching for a non-contender; however, the Reds are determined to acquire several prospects for Neagle.

For now, that means Kamieniecki is projected as Miller's No. 4 starter ahead of Ponson. Encouraged by Kamieniecki's pledge to arrive at Fort Lauderdale ready to pitch three innings, Miller already has scheduled him to work the fourth game of spring training. For the next several weeks, Kamieniecki intends to continue regular workouts with the University of Michigan baseball team.

"If Kammy's healthy, I feel very comfortable with what we have," said Miller, noting the presence of Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson and Juan Guzman. "Look what he did in '97 as the fourth guy. I'd love 200-plus innings."

Offering no promises of another 10-win, 179-inning season like the one that covered 30 starts in '97, Kamieniecki feels sound enough to suggest that the Orioles needn't panic over their rotation.

Said Kamieniecki: "I'll push it until my body says to stop. I'm hoping that doesn't happen. Everything has been real positive so far. It's always nice not to have numbness in your hands."

Miller estimated Kamieniecki's velocity at "about 80 percent" and was encouraged by his fluid mechanics, which contrasted the tortured motion created by his disk condition. Because of a similar surgery seven years before while with the New York Yankees, the lower three vertebrae in Kamieniecki's neck are now fused.

"I don't have the same flexibility I had before, but I'm not that restricted," Kamieniecki said. "I feel great. There's no pain. I'm just looking forward to pitching again instead of watching."

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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