15-day DL just start for Ripken

`Nerve irritation' calls for sustained rehab in first layoff in 19 years

Clark to miss 4-5 weeks

New No. 5 starter, Garcia likely recalls

April 20, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

TAMPA, Fla. -- A season of painful firsts continued yesterday for Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken when the club decided to place the game's all-time Iron Man on the disabled list for the first time in his 19-year career. The move, to be made official today, was based on a Cleveland orthopedic doctor's diagnosis that Ripken is suffering from "nerve irritation" in his lower back and will require a sustained rehabilitation program.

As expected, first baseman Will Clark will accompany Ripken on the disabled list because of a fractured left thumb suffered in the first inning of Sunday's game in Toronto. Clark, the Orioles' No. 3 hitter, is expected to miss four to five weeks and may require surgery.

"I think we can deal with it for the short term," general manager Frank Wren said. "Having [backup Jeff] Conine makes it somewhat more palatable because we have someone who is a formidable offensive player. But you can't replace a Will Clark. You've lost your two corner guys. You can't replace those."

The Orioles will use the two moves to shake up the team's composition. Manager Ray Miller will receive his long-sought 12th pitcher, either in Rocky Coppinger or Jason Johnson. Whoever is promoted will replace Doug Linton as fifth starter Saturday against Oakland.

Linton will be transferred to long relief, where the Orioles have suffered because of a string of abbreviated starts.

Clark's absence initially pointed to the promotion of Rochester first baseman Calvin Pickering. But Pickering is bothered by a sore shoulder that kept him out of Sunday's lineup, leaving utility infielder Jesse Garcia as likely to be recalled.

Club officials concede Ripken, who will be put on the DL retroactive to Sunday, may miss more than the minimum 15 days as he attempts to strengthen an area that has dogged him since July 1997.

"I think it's the right thing to do," Miller said. "I was kind of hoping they'd find something, get it fixed and make him be 100 percent when he comes back."

Team officials add that Ripken's current problem isn't believed to be linked directly to the herniated disk that threatened his consecutive-games streak two seasons ago.

"He sees some hope because now they think they have gotten to the root of the problem," said Wren, who spoke to Ripken following yesterday's examination.

The diagnosis by Dr. Henry Bohlman, professor of orthopedics at Case Western University, represents the latest turn in a saga that began Opening Day with Ripken removing himself from the third inning with acute lower back pain. Ripken missed the next two games, returned, and appeared to be making significant progress before relapsing Saturday night and Sunday morning.

"We'll take the same approach as last time except we'll give it more time for the therapy to take," said Wren. "We've been told he could be ready at the end of the DL time, but there is no way to know until he completes the therapy."

Today Ripken will take the first of a series of cortisone shots. A second will be administered within five to seven days. Complete rest has been prescribed for the next four days.

Already this year, Ripken has left a game due to injury and failed to start because of injury for the first time since 1982, when his remarkable streak of 2,632 games began. Even when plagued by a herniated disk in 1997, Ripken played through pain that often left him unable to sit and sometimes prevented him from sleeping.

Asked if surgery remains an eventual alternative, Wren said no. "It's in the same area, but the disk is not a factor," he said.

Clark was examined by team hand specialist Dr. Hugh Baugher, but will apparently get a second opinion regarding treatment and rehabilitation. Clark could elect to have a pin inserted into the thumb, which was fractured above the joint. Surgery would prolong his absence by about a week.

Regardless, the Orioles will turn over the everyday role to Conine, whom they acquired from the Kansas City Royals on April 1 for pitching prospect Chris Fussell. Conine, a two-time All-Star with the Florida Marlins and a solid defensive player, has been used primarily as a pinch hitter by Miller. He delivered important hits in consecutive games last week against the New York Yankees but is hitting .125 with four RBIs in only 16 at-bats.

Clark will be placed on the DL today, retroactive to yesterday. It is the sixth time in the last four seasons he has been on the DL.

The team's leading hitter with a .370 average, Clark sustained the injury when former Oriole Willie Greene's one-hop shot ricocheted off the thumb toward second base. Clark retreated to the bag where he took Delino DeShields' throw for the inning's third out but headed immediately to the clubhouse. Clark was taken to an area hospital where X-rays confirmed the break.

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