MINNEAPOLIS -- Scott Erickson worked four simulated innings in the Orioles bullpen before last night's game against the Minnesota Twins. Afterward, Orioles manager Mike Hargrove was willing to hang optimism, but not a date for the innings monster's return, around the performance.
Typically reserved with descriptions of his progress, this time Erickson left the Metrodome bullpen visibly encouraged. He has reason. The Orioles have received every indication that he will meet last month's projection of an April return from elbow surgery.
Erickson, who has not won a game in April since 1998, hasn't missed a scheduled side session since undergoing arthroscopic surgery March 3 for removal of bone chips from his right elbow. He also has participated in an aggressive long-toss program and begun pressing weight with the arm. Hargrove has been encouraged by medical reports and the absence of what Erickson calls "backward days."
Pitching coach Sammy Ellis deferred to Erickson's wish that the club not affix a firm date for his projected return. "It's like always -- day-to-day," Ellis said.
However, the plan for Erickson is gradually emerging. He will next throw in Baltimore on Monday with special emphasis placed on whether he can maintain consistent velocity through a five-inning simulation. If so, Hargrove and Ellis will discuss sending him out for a rehab start.
Earlier projections that Erickson might return by April 25 apparently were overly optimistic, but a club source indicated it is likely he will make Hargrove's "window" of April 25-May 2 barring complications.
Erickson christened the workout "a positive." For the second consecutive session, he worked four simulated innings of 15 pitches apiece with a warm-up before. Erickson sat between "innings" just as he would during an actual start. He mixed in a changeup with his power assortment, impressing Ellis with his mechanics and command.
"He looked good; he looked real good," said Ellis.
This is the first arm-related injury of Erickson's 11-year career, and he has adopted an ultra-conservative approach to discussing his return. "It's like I've been saying: one step at a time. I'm not getting ahead of myself," he said.
Timlin on track
Closer Mike Timlin threw on the side before last night's game and left Hargrove optimistic that he will be ready to come off the disabled list on Monday.
"He was good," Hargrove said. "He threw for five minutes and said he didn't feel anything."
Timlin has been on the disabled list with a torn abdominal muscle and has yet to make a regular-season appearance. He'll throw on the side in Minnesota tomorrow and -- if all goes well -- will rejoin the bullpen for the series opener against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays the next day.
The return of Timlin should take some pressure off an Orioles bullpen that took a pounding in the three-game sweep in Kansas City and in the opener at the Metrodome last night.
Last night's eighth-inning collapse and the Royals' three consecutive sudden-death victories have only amplified the impact of Timlin's absence. The Orioles blew big leads in two of the Kansas City losses, to go along with last night's meltdown. All three might have been salvaged if Hargrove had been able to use Mike Trombley as the set-up man instead of the fill-in closer.
There could be a flurry of roster moves on Monday. Timlin probably will rejoin the roster, which will push young Gabe Molina back to Triple-A Rochester. Veteran catcher Greg Myers also will be eligible to return from a hamstring strain, which would figure to put rookie Willie Morales on the same plane with Molina.
The countdown continued for Cal Ripken, who lined a single to right field off left-hander Eric Milton in his first at-bat for his 2,997th career hit. He fouled out in his next at-bat, then drove a line drive deep to left that seemed destined for extra bases until left fielder Jacques Jones made a fine running catch.
Ripken hit the ball hard again in the seventh inning, but right at center fielder Torii Hunter -- deep enough to score a run from third, but too deep to be No. 2,998.
First baseman Will Clark, who suffered an upper back spasm during Thursday's game in Kansas City, showed some improvement overnight and arrived at the Metrodome yesterday in good spirits, but was not in the lineup against Milton.
Hargrove won't rule out a late-inning pinch-hit appearance, but it seems unlikely that Clark will play in the second game of the series today.
The injury did not come at a convenient time for Hargrove, who might have considered using Ripken as the designated hitter for one of the games this weekend if Jeff Conine was available to play third base.
Shortstop Mike Bordick muscled up on another one yesterday, launching a long three-run homer off Milton in the second inning for his fourth home run of the season. The home run tied Bordick with Charles Johnson for the club lead and the three RBIs gave him a club-high total of 16.
The bottom two members of the regular lineup have combined for eight homers and 30 RBIs. The rest of the team entered last night's game with five homers and 31 RBIs.