Out to prove he's not just pain in neck

Kamieniecki: The Orioles' right-hander wastes no time showing he has come a long way since his second neck fusion operation.

February 21, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- A nasty scar runs about 3 inches toward the front of Scott Kamieniecki's neck.

Its companion is a 6-inch stitch on Kamieniecki's left hip, where doctors rummaged for a sliver of bone to fuse between two vertebrae pinching his spinal cord.

Since yesterday's first workout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium was all about show-and-tell, the Orioles' hoped-for No. 4 starting pitcher spent about 15 minutes proving to manager Ray Miller and pitching coach Bruce Kison that he can throw without pain, throw with feeling in the fingers of his right hand throw with purpose.

"It's always nice when a guy can feel his hand for the first time in two years," an impressed Miller said.

The first day of workouts might have been routine to most of the pitchers and catchers who rotated between three fields, but it was nothing shy of a triumph for Kamieniecki, a 10-6 pitcher in 1997 but a 2-6 hostage to the disabled list last season.

"I think what I should do is schedule an appointment for November. That way I can lock a spot in the operation room and then later we can fill a blank with neck, arm, shoulder, whatever," cracked Kamieniecki, who spent parts of every month on the disabled list.

Kamieniecki referred last spring to his fresh two-year, $6.2 million contract as akin to walking into a casino with $5 and walking out a millionaire.

This February brings about a different, more painful comparison. Having experienced a similar procedure while with the New York Yankees, Kamieniecki, who'll be 35 in April, became one of the 5 percent to experience a second such operation. "I was the guy who hit the lottery," he said.

The three-hour procedure was performed Sept. 15 at Cleveland's Case Western Hospital. It necessitated doctors entering the front of Kamieniecki's neck to reach the affected area. After moving aside Kamieniecki's voice box, they were forced to cut away one vertebra, shave another, then insert the bone graft. Due to the previous surgery, Kamieniecki now has three bones in his neck fused into one.

The hidden glue of the Orioles' solid 1997 rotation says he won't back away from challenging himself this spring. He has thrown with maximum velocity since Feb. 1 and insisted yesterday's 15 minutes were less strenuous than his own program.

"If it breaks, it breaks. We'll know," said Kamieniecki, able to endure for only 54 2/3 innings last season after producing 179 1/3 innings in 1997. "I'm not coming in here holding anything back."

Compared to last summer, this spring is heaven. His season took a permanent downward turn on May 22 when he experienced numbness and pain in his right arm during a start against Oakland. Kamieniecki was immediately put on the disabled list and did not reappear until July 25.

When he did pitch again, Kamieniecki felt searing pain that ran from his hand through the length of his arm. He couldn't sleep. He couldn't fly without discomfort. Eventually, he couldn't take it.

"I know where I'm at. I just don't know whether I can hold up or not. Until you pitch every five days, start after start, for 20, 25, 35 starts you don't know. Physically, I'm as good as anybody in here," Kamieniecki said.

Though he has cast Kamieniecki as his No. 4 starter, Miller hedged when asked whether Kamieniecki or Sidney Ponson would be bumped should another starter be acquired before Opening Day.

"You like the high side of Ponson what he could produce," said Miller. "But you might like to give him a half-season" in the bullpen.

Miller added: "I think a lot of clubs would like to have the five starters we have."

He says every starter will be expected to go more than five innings come Opening Day. Kamieniecki will make the rotation only if ready.

Miller hastened that he hasn't discounted arms such as Rocky Coppinger, Chris Fussell, Gabe Molina, Terry Burrows and Doug Linton. Unlike last spring, Miller insists he enjoys alternatives in case of injuries.

"We'll probably go out [of camp] with 12 [pitchers]. I told these guys you want to be one of the 15 or 16 people out of the 21 or 22 here. Last year we went out with 11. I wanted 12. I didn't get it and there was no 13," Miller said.

Pub Date: 2/21/99

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