Orioles' Hentgen out until midseason

Right-hander has sprained ligament in elbow, tests show

May 31, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE -- Orioles Opening Day starter Pat Hentgen will be sidelined through at least the July 9-11 All-Star break because of a sprained elbow ligament, the club announced last night after receiving results from orthopedic specialist Dr. James Andrews, who examined Hentgen in Birmingham, Ala.

While the club said Andrews' findings confirmed earlier tests administered by its doctors, Hentgen's protracted hiatus conflicts with earlier optimism that he would miss no more than one start due to a strained flexor tendon in the elbow. However, the strained tendon was found to be symptomatic of the sprained ligament, which will necessitate more extensive down time.

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove and head trainer Richie Bancells said Hentgen will be out of the rotation for four to six weeks. He will immediately begin a combination of rest and exercise to rehabilitate the affected area, Bancells said.

"I don't think it's a serious thing. It's just a situation that has to be dealt with. It's going to take some time," Bancells said. "But in terms of severity, he's not in a severe injury situation. It'll take some time for him to regain his strength and for us to get him back."

Hentgen, 32, sought a second opinion from Andrews after undergoing an "inconclusive" magnetic resonance imaging last week in Baltimore. Since his last start, Hentgen also attempted two bullpen sessions that had to be cut short by recurring elbow pain whenever he threw a breaking pitch. The Orioles placed him on the disabled list last Friday retroactive to May 17.

Hargrove at first thought Hentgen could be activated in time to make tomorrow's start in Oakland. His hope slowly gave way to a harsher reality.

"I think that the sprain of the ligament caused the strained tendon. We want to make sure all that has died down to prevent anything more serious from happening," said Hargrove, who learned of the findings by vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift. "This is going to be a long process as opposed to a short process."

Rookie Josh Towers will remain in the rotation, according to Hargrove, rather than the club beginning a search for outside help.

Hentgen's loss is not a good sign for a club that has ridden an overachieving pitching staff to a 24-26 start. Signed in December to a two-year, $9.6 million contract, Hentgen is 2-3 with a 3.47 ERA. He had averaged nearly seven innings in nine starts, an important number in the Orioles' attempt to better ration their bullpen this season. Hentgen is expected to rejoin the team in New York next week.

Not until Hentgen attempted to snap a curveball in the first inning of his May 16 start against Detroit did he experience significant pain in the elbow. He had endured shoulder stiffness earlier in the season but overcame it by skipping a side session between starts.

The injury extends a frustrating string of injuries to recently acquired Orioles pitchers. Since trading for reliever Alan Mills last June 13, the Orioles have suffered significant down time from six pitchers signed as free agents or obtained via trade.

Prospects Mark Nussbeck (St. Louis Cardinals), Pat Gorman (New York Mets) and Luis Rivera (Atlanta Braves) went down for the season either before or during spring training.

Mills (Los Angeles Dodgers) has not pitched since undergoing surgery to repair a labrum tear in August. Left-hander John Bale (Toronto Blue Jays) missed nearly a month with tendinitis immediately after the Orioles optioned him to Rochester.

Conine at cleanup

Jeff Conine may not know what position he'll play from day to day, but he knows where he's hitting. Hargrove has committed Conine to the cleanup spot while he enjoys a 14-game hitting streak, the longest of the 10-year veteran's career.

Conine is hitting .426 (23-for-54) with two home runs and 14 RBIs during his tear.

"This is as good as I can remember feeling at the plate for an extended period," said Conine, who in 13 straight games in 1994. "When things are going well, you can get away with not feeling great on a given night. [Tuesday] night I felt blah, but I scratched one out."

The team leader in RBIs (28) and second in batting average (.325), Conine has excelled despite a plantar facia injury in his right foot suffered in the season's first week. The condition has caused him to accept a cortisone injection but still gives him excruciating pain after active games in the field.

"Anything involving stops and starts causes a problem," said Conine, who listed first base as his most problematic position because of frequent quick bursts to the bag.

The good news for the Orioles: "Hitting never affects it," he said.

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