O's begin March facing a must win

March 01, 2000|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The season is so young that they aren't even playing Grapefruit League games yet, but suddenly, the Orioles are in a must-win situation straight out of the final days of a tight pennant race.

Scott Erickson is flying across the country to have a specialist examine his sore right elbow today, and it's not an exaggeration to say the Orioles' entire season could depend on what Dr. Lewis Yocum finds.

If the news is bad and Erickson is lost for an extended time, the Orioles are in trouble. Big trouble. There's no other way to put it. Their rotation just isn't deep enough to overcome the loss of a No. 2 starter who has averaged 16 wins and 234 innings over the past three seasons.

Quite simply, losing Erickson would amount to a negative development weighing more than any potential positive this spring, effectively assuring March of a failing final grade before a single pitch against another team is thrown.

On the other hand, if the news from California is good and Erickson is able to jump back into the rotation with little time lost, the Orioles can go back to their glass-half-full belief that their tenuous blend of high-priced talent will fare better than a year ago.

In other words, a whole lot will be on the line today when Erickson sticks his arm in the magnetic resonance imaging machine in Yocum's California office.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said yesterday it would "be very sensible" for the Orioles to try to pick up another starter if Erickson goes down, but the harsh reality is they can't replace him.

Any pitcher of even semi-comparable quality is already locked up elsewhere, and a desperate trade for a potential free agent such as Minnesota's Brad Radke would mean giving up more prospects than the Orioles can afford to lose.

What other options do they have? Only one, basically -- closing their eyes and praying that Calvin Maduro, Jose Mercedes, Pat Rapp or one of the other pitchers competing for the No. 5 spot in the rotation is able to carry a much heavier load than anticipated.

That's not likely, and even in a best-case scenario, what are the chances of such a pitcher filling the heavy load Erickson has assumed since coming to the Orioles from Minnesota in a 1995 trade?

Not that Erickson, 32, is a dominating ace or even an All-Star; his career numbers with the Orioles are 69-48 with a 4.27 earned run average, evidence of a pattern of up and down performances.

But he gobbles up more innings than most starters, and that's valuable in an age when quality pitching is hard to find and starters tend to start looking for help from the bullpen once they reach the sixth inning. Erickson, a throwback of sorts, would rather finish what he starts.

"You never want to lose your No. 2 starter under any circumstances," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said yesterday.

And you really don't want to lose one who throws 250 innings without blinking and tends to get better as the season progresses and the games get more important, a trend evidenced by Erickson's career ERA, which drops more than a half-point after the All-Star break.

The Orioles obviously never envisioned having to go without him this season, even though he missed his last start in 1999 because of tightness in his right forearm and underwent another MRI test in Yocum's office during the off-season.

Watching his strong-man act down the stretch last season, when he went 8-3 with a 3.16 ERA, who couldn't envision him being part of the 2000 rotation?

When the Orioles were on the verge of adding Aaron Sele to a rotation already including Mike Mussina, Erickson, Sidney Ponson and Jason Johnson, they had the makings of a dominant starting staff, one of the AL's best.

But now, with Sele signed in Seattle and Erickson on his way to see Yocum, the Orioles are facing the grim possibility of Ponson as the No. 2 starter behind Mussina, Johnson at No. 3 and, well, who knows after that?

Just what the Orioles didn't want -- too much pressure on their young starters just beginning to establish themselves.

It's no wonder Hargrove was framing things as positively as possible yesterday.

"If it [surgery] had to happen, you'd still have time to recover from that and still have a very productive season," he said. "But hopefully we're not looking at that scenario. Hopefully, we're looking at a scenario where all he does is take another five or six days off."

Brother, do the Orioles ever need that to happen.

Not to sound too hysterical so soon, but Erickson's presence in the rotation basically translates into the difference between the club maybe winning 85 games and keeping things interesting (if he's around), or possibly experiencing a calamitous season even worse than the debacle of 1999.

It's September in March, in other words. Suddenly, out of nowhere, the Orioles need a big win today. Maybe their biggest of the season.

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