Surgery set, Erickson out 6-8 weeks

Tests in L.A. reveal Orioles' No. 2 starter has bone chips in elbow

Mid-April return possible

Spot in rotation likely to be filled from within

March 02, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles starting pitcher Scott Erickson will miss at least the first two weeks of the season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery tomorrow morning to remove bone chips from his tender right elbow, the club confirmed yesterday.

Highly regarded orthopedic surgeon Dr. Lewis Yocum discovered numerous "very small, loose bodies" in Erickson's elbow after performing a magnetic resonance imaging and a CT scan in Los Angeles. The particles, so small they weren't detected by an MRI, according to team officials, had caused Erickson to experience tightness and swelling in the elbow and prevented him from straightening his right arm. A test administered in Fort Lauderdale on Monday had proved inconclusive.

Orioles officials said Erickson, the team's No. 2 starter, will miss six to eight weeks because of surgery, thus creating an early-season jumble of the starting rotation.

Before learning of Yocum's verdict, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove had begun plotting contingencies in case of Erickson's protracted absence.

"Our job is to prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Hargrove said, reciting an infantryman's creed.

The uncertainty surrounding Erickson represents the first disruption of an otherwise smooth-running camp. Hargrove will start rookie Calvin Maduro in tomorrow's Grapefruit League opener against a Cincinnati Reds split squad. Erickson had been scheduled to start.

Maduro, nonroster right-hander Jose Mercedes, left-handed reliever Radhames Dykhoff and 20-year-old left-hander Matt Riley are projected as the main combatants for the newly created opening. Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson and Pat Rapp will each advance a rung in the five-man rotation.

An internal candidate "would be realistic, not to say we wouldn't pursue another option. It's not anything you can build your house on," said vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift.

Erickson will return from Los Angeles on Saturday or Sunday, Thrift said.

Rest will be prescribed for seven to 10 days as swelling subsides. Erickson then will begin a rehabilitation that likely will conclude with him visiting the club's extended spring complex in Sarasota or making a start or two for a minor-league affiliate.

Until yesterday's announcement, Thrift had declined to speculate on the cause of Erickson's problem. However, once he received Yocum's assessment, Thrift said the pitcher's symptoms had led him to suspect bone chips were present.

"Based on my medical and professional aptitude, I was suspecting there was a particle," he said. "All it takes is a particle to get between the joint to lock it."

The news represents a relief to a club that classified Erickson's condition as "a mystery" until yesterday. Though Erickson's absence will complicate April, he is expected to return before May, meaning the team can fill his vacancy from within rather than conduct a frantic search for a season-long successor.

Erickson's availability could represent the difference between the Orioles rebounding from consecutive fourth-place finishes or suffering another pitching meltdown.

The staff workhorse has averaged more than 230 innings in four complete seasons in Baltimore and is considered especially critical to a rotation that includes a 23-year-old pitcher, Ponson, and another member appearing for the first time as a No. 4 starter. A week ago, Hargrove said the No. 4 spot in the rotation was Jason Johnson's to lose. Now Johnson will have to hold down the No. 3 spot through at least April 15.

Without Erickson, Mike Mussina's presence as staff leader becomes even more pronounced. Last season, Mussina was the only starter to win a decision until April 30. The Orioles hope nothing even remotely similar infects a rotation in flux.

"Moose being who he is, I don't think it adds any pressure but it just makes it doubly important that we really pay attention to what we're doing and take care of our jobs," Hargrove said. "I don't think you get more innings out of anybody. There's just less room for error."

Mussina echoed his manager, saying he did not believe the staff was susceptible to a repeat of last season's collapse, which eventually spread throughout the clubhouse.

"This is different from last year because this won't affect everything," Mussina said. "This affects Scotty. It doesn't affect how Brady [Anderson] plays center field, Cal [Ripken] plays third base or Albert [Belle] plays right field. This situation relates to Scotty. The other four guys can't go out and pitch more innings. You just make sure you take care of your spot."

Erickson's troubled spring included a mild ankle sprain suffered while jogging earlier this week. Thrift said the injury is not serious but would have prevented Erickson from throwing until today even if his elbow had exhibited improvement.

Yocum examined Erickson's elbow after last season, when he pitched most of the second half with a slight tear of an elbow tendon. An MRI taken of the area last November revealed no chips, said a source familiar with the results. That finding would seem to support the club's insistence that Friday's procedure will remove nothing more than particle-sized pieces.

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