O's fears rise over Erickson

No. 2 starter has MRI as elbow improvement reaches a plateau

Concern `more than minor'

Inability to straighten arm worries pitcher

February 29, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- No longer dismissive of Scott Erickson's mysterious elbow condition as a spring training blip, Orioles officials expect to learn today the source of stiffness and inflammation that forced the starting pitcher to scrap yesterday's scheduled bullpen session along with a start in Friday's exhibition opener.

Erickson, one of the game's most durable pitchers, left the team's complex yesterday morning to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging, X-rays and blood work while Orioles executives said that a condition that showed steady improvement for several days had "plateaued."

"I think my concern is probably more than minor right now," manager Mike Hargrove said. "Obviously, we'll know more once the doctors thoroughly examine him."

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift described the situation as "a mystery" after yesterday's workout but stopped short of classifying the situation as critical.

Able to dismiss the condition as "no big deal" on Saturday, Erickson expressed alarm yesterday. "I can't straighten my arm. That concerns me," said Erickson, who has averaged more than 34 starts in four complete seasons in Baltimore. "Let's just hope it's swelling. It doesn't hurt."

While Hargrove and Orioles trainers were reluctant to divulge details of Erickson's initial treatment, a club source said the right-hander had the elbow drained shortly after he awoke with significant swelling and tightness Tuesday. The condition steadily improved for several days, leading Hargrove and pitching coach Sammy Ellis to schedule yesterday's bullpen session.

However, their plans were complicated on Sunday when Erickson sprained an ankle jogging alongside busy Commercial Boulevard south of Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Hargrove said the second injury would have sidelined Erickson at least two to three days, even if his elbow had showed additional improvement.

Mike Mussina may be the Orioles' unchallenged ace, but Erickson is counted upon to provide the consistent innings necessary to hold together the team's bullpen. Concern over Erickson's condition swept the clubhouse yesterday, prompting one veteran to classify Erickson's potential extended absence as "disastrous."

The focus of trade discussions this off-season, Erickson confirmed pitching last season's second half with a slight tendon tear inside the elbow, a matter believed unrelated to the current problem.

He said he addressed the condition by missing his last scheduled start and taking four days off from his rigorous weightlifting program after the season.

"Last year, I knew exactly what it was. It just got to the point where it made no sense to go out there," said Erickson, adding he did not seek off-season surgery.

Orioles officials insist the problems are unrelated.

Erickson constructed a 15-12 record last season despite losing his first five starts and finding himself with a 1-8 record on June 4. He partly attributed his sluggish start to receiving too few innings and irregular appearances in spring training, which contributed to out-of-whack mechanics.

A camp intended to represent a new beginning for Erickson following a turbulent 1999 has instead become a cause for worry. Erickson arrived here early and threw three bullpen sessions on alternating days.

He then threw on Feb. 21 and was scheduled to throw live batting practice the next day. However, Erickson awoke Feb. 22 unable to straighten his arm more than several inches. He attributed the problem to an awkward sleeping position.

"I'd like to go home, come back and start all over," he said.

Asked if the setback represented a "red flag," Hargrove re- plied, "I wouldn't say red; I'd say yellow. I'd say our concern may be a little bit more than it was."

Erickson represents the broad back of a rotation already including 23-year-old Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson, who has been promoted from last season's No. 5 starter to this year's No. 4. Free-agent pickup Pat Rapp is projected as the fifth starter after signing for $750,000.

Hargrove will start Calvin Maduro in place of Erickson on Friday, but said the move should not be interpreted as a commitment to the 25-year-old Aruban.

Maduro, minor-league free agent Jose Mercedes and 20-year-old Matt Riley represent the most obvious contingencies if Erickson remains hindered. Thrift also may trawl for a pitcher discarded by another organization as rosters are pared later this spring.

"I think we're situated pretty well with the arms we have in camp. We can stem the tide until Scotty gets back," Hargrove said.

Patience has its limits. The issue may require front office assistance if it persists for another two weeks, according to Hargrove.

"We still have a month of spring training left," he said. "We don't want to burn too many days, but we still have time."

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