For Erickson, a thumbs up

Pitcher's rehab start is fine in Frederick

April 26, 2000|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FREDERICK -- There wasn't much lacking in Scott Erickson's rehab start last night. Run support was slow to come, the least of the Orioles' worries as they sent their No. 2 starter to the minors to test his right elbow. If they wanted results to go with a positive medical report, they couldn't have been more satisfied.

Pitching for the first time since March 3 surgery, Erickson left little room to haggle over his physical condition or readiness to rejoin to the Orioles. He was charged with two runs in 6 2/3 innings for Single-A Frederick, the last scoring after he had been removed with his pitch count at 85. He allowed three hits, walked one and struck out five.

"I felt all right," he said. "I was just trying to keep the ball down and throw strikes. I got through it. That was the main thing."

Expected to follow ace Mike Mussina in the Orioles' rotation, Erickson never appeared in a spring training game after having bone chips removed from his elbow through an arthroscopic procedure. His absence forced manager Mike Hargrove to massage the rotation, with Sidney Ponson moving up to No. 2 despite a rocky spring and Pat Rapp vaulting to third after Jason Johnson was demoted to Triple-A Rochester.

By getting Erickson back, perhaps as early as Sunday at Camden Yards, order would be restored. Hargrove could construct the rotation he had envisioned three months ago, with Mussina, Erickson, Ponson, Rapp and Johnson. The only issue would be clearing space for his newest addition.

Erickson hadn't stepped on a mound when it counted since Sept. 27 in Boston, when he lost to Pedro Martinez, 5-3, to end a personal five-game winning streak. Erickson missed his final start on Oct. 2, also against the Red Sox, because of tightness in his right forearm. He won 14 of his last 18 decisions.

The road to recovery had taken him to various bullpens in the American League, where he progressed from light tossing to throwing simulated innings. Erickson grew encouraged by his velocity, which didn't dip as the sessions were extended, and ability to use all his pitches without discomfort. The last obstacle was putting some hitters in front of him and recording outs that no longer were imaginary.

He cleared it with room to spare. Erickson went almost two more innings than the Orioles had anticipated. He threw 85 pitches, 58 for strikes, and left with Frederick leading Potomac, 3-1, after the Keys scored twice in the sixth to break a tie. Erickson retired 14 in a row before walking David Kim with one out in the seventh.

"I still need to get my arm strength back," said Erickson, who hadn't pitched in the minors since 1990 with Orlando. "My velocity's not where I need it to be. Hopefully it's not too far off. But mechanically, I felt good.

"I'm not going to make any conclusions or jump ahead. I'll see how I feel tomorrow and talk to Grover and see where we are. I don't want to come back if I can't help the team."

When the injury was disclosed, early speculation had Erickson being out of the rotation until perhaps the first week in May.

Erickson never experienced any setbacks, whether soft tossing in the outfield, throwing in the bullpen or moving indoors during a rain delay at Camden Yards. And each session would bring guarded optimism from pitching coach Sammy Ellis, who kept the media updated on Erickson's progress without predicting his return.

It wasn't until Thursday, before a make-up game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, that Hargrove revealed when Erickson would begin his rehab assignment. The only potential glitch was the weather. Rain fell during much of the day in the Baltimore area, but Frederick didn't receive a drop and the stadium grounds crew had no trouble getting the field ready.

Not wearing sleeves despite the cold, Erickson stood one step behind the rest of the Keys in the dugout as the anthem played, then trotted to the mound to begin what he hoped would be his only game in a minor-league uniform.

Working at a brisk pace, he allowed a leadoff single to Esix Snead in the first inning before getting a grounder and two strikeouts. Troy McNaughton dropped a double down the left-field line with one out in the second inning, and a two-out single to right by Rob Macrory gave the Cannons a 1-0 lead.

Erickson threw 20 pitches in the first inning and 15 in the second. From there, he practically took the rest of the night off.

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