O's response to stress: calm or clammy?

March 03, 2000|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The Orioles' reaction to the bad news about Scott Erickson's elbow was decidedly low-key yesterday, which means one of two things:

Either they have a veteran club and veteran coaches who know better than to get excited about anything that happens in early March, or they're in serious denial about a piece of potentially devastating news.

Both are true, actually.

The understated reaction was as predictable as the Florida sunshine given the Orioles' low-pulse composition, the uncertainty surrounding any injury to a pitcher and the early season timing of Erickson's pending surgery to remove a sprinkling of bone chips from his elbow.

A team that doesn't get excited about anything isn't about to flinch at a setback occurring a month before Opening Day and almost six months before September's pennant-race pressures.

Add new manager Mike Hargrove's calming presence and new pitching coach Sammy Ellis' "seen everything, done everything [twice]" approach to the mix, and you can see why there was no panic as the news about Erickson -- which came down after everyone was gone the day before -- spread through the clubhouse yesterday.

"Hopefully, it's just six or eight weeks [out], and we'll have him back by the end of April," starting pitcher Jason Johnson said.

"It's bad news for us, for sure, because he's a big part of our rotation, but it's something that's happened," first baseman Jeff Conine said. "We can't sit around and grovel about it. We have to move on. I think we have some capable arms who can step in and pick up the slack.

"I think we can do more than just hold on until [Erickson] gets back."

But when is he coming back? And more importantly, when will he be back to his old, innings-gobbling self?

This is a pitcher who went 1-8 with a 7.11 ERA over his first 12 starts last season because, he said, he didn't get in enough serious work in spring training and basically wasn't ready for in-season conditions.

Now, he's going to get no innings in spring training and no serious work until April, and we're supposed to believe that he's just going to jump right back into the rotation in late April or early May and pick up where he left off down the stretch last season?

Uh, sure.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift and Hargrove keep saying they expect Erickson, 32, to miss only a few starts and still build a typical season of wins and innings (like his 15 wins in 230 1/3 innings in 1999), but that seems like wishful thinking at this point.

True, pitching injuries are hard to predict and sometimes aren't as serious as they originally appear, and bone chips aren't the worst-case surgical scenario. Given Erickson's furious approach to conditioning, he'll rehab and get back as fast as anyone can.

But let's face it, cutting on a No. 2 starter's elbow a month before the season rates as an unqualified disaster, particularly since Erickson needs work to pitch his best.

If he couldn't get anyone out until June last season despite pitching a full spring season that, in the end, wasn't rigorous enough, how is he going to get anyone out in May this year without any spring preparation at all?

From this viewpoint, it'd be a victory if Erickson is back in winning shape by the All-Star break in early July.

And a lot is going to have to go right in the reshuffled rotation for the Orioles to avoid being all but eliminated from the playoff race by then, as they were in 1998 and last season.

Johnson, 26, who has 10 career wins and has never gone a full season as a major-league starter, is going to have to deliver as the No. 3 starter. So is Sidney Ponson, 23, who was penciled in at No. 4 when Aaron Sele was almost signed, but now sits in the No. 2 slot behind Mike Mussina.

And Pat Rapp, signed as a combination No. 5/insurance policy after the Red Sox let him go, is now a major player.

"It's a shame about Scotty because we had a pretty good starting staff with him," Johnson said, "but we can't let it affect us. It doesn't matter to me if I'm the No. 5 starter or the No. 3 or whatever. I don't even pay attention to that stuff. Just give me the ball and give me a chance to pitch."

That's the right approach, the sensible approach, the only approach a team can take after one of its essential components is lost.

If anything, the Orioles are more unflappable this season with Hargrove and Ellis setting the tone. That's not a bad thing.

But make no mistake, if they boiled into a full-scale panic about Erickson, well, you couldn't blame them.

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