Erickson, O's set to start anew

Back from arm injury, pitcher sets sights on Opening Day start

`Personally, that's my goal'

Pitchers, catchers report to first day of spring training

February 15, 2002|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - They filed in one at a time yesterday, beginning with reliever Buddy Groom, whose first steps inside the Orioles' spring training clubhouse were taken on new carpeting. Across from his locker stood Scott Erickson, who brought along the old demeanor.

No longer separated from the team while rehabilitating his right elbow, Erickson said he should be "good enough" to earn the Opening Day start on April 1 against the New York Yankees. He did some throwing on the field yesterday after reporting with the other pitchers and catchers, lifted weights and went for a run with Sidney Ponson and Josh Towers. There was an occasional smile or lighthearted moment, but mostly, Erickson was all business.

For a team in desperate need of his experience and the innings he once provided, it was all good.

"I'm always very excited to get to spring training every year. It never comes soon enough," he said. "But over the past year, under the circumstances that I've gone through, I've never started throwing so early. I was doing everything possible to get ready as soon as possible."

He barely took notice that two corner lockers no longer were reserved for Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson, who removed most of the club's identity when they left. Jeff Conine's nameplate has replaced Ripken's, and Mike Bordick will occupy the space once belonging to Anderson. The locker assigned to outfielder Chris Richard, whose shoulder surgery might keep him out until the All-Star break, is at the far end of a row otherwise reserved for the pitchers.

None of it seemed strange to Erickson, who hasn't pitched in a competitive game since undergoing ligament-transplant surgery 18 months ago. "No, because I didn't play last year," he said.

As if he needed any more reminders.

"It's real hard. You can't put it into words," he said. "It was one of the most miserable ... even to go out there and lose is better than not going out there at all. I had a bad year in Minnesota [in 1993], but I was still playing baseball, which is what I love to do. To not be able to play was a very upsetting feeling."

Erickson's velocity has reached the low 90s, close to where he's usually clocked. He could have pitched the final game last season, but he decided to wait before making his return, saying there was "no point" in going out there so soon after the surgery.

"I didn't need that," he said. "I was already satisfied with where I was."

He would be more satisfied if chosen to replace Pat Hentgen, who had the same surgery last year, as the Opening Day starter. Ponson and Jason Johnson also will be given consideration by manager Mike Hargrove, who spent most of yesterday in meetings with club officials and coaches.

"Personally, that's my goal, but whatever's best for the team," Erickson said. "If I don't deserve to pitch that day, I shouldn't. I know there's not a whole lot to write about, but it shouldn't be a topic. It's up to Grover, and he can't make that decision until we get four or five weeks into spring training."

Though Erickson said he's full-go for the season and won't require any adjustments in his throwing motion or work schedule, it's uncertain whether the Orioles will restrict his pitch counts early or simply turn him loose.

"Those things will be determined in spring training," said Ed Kenney, a special assistant to Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president for baseball operations. "It's too early to see how that will go. Every individual is different."

A small group of them shared something in common yesterday as they unpacked gear and headed outside, where a light rain fell most of the morning. Matt Riley had ligament-transplant surgery a month after Erickson. Catcher Fernando Lunar had a cyst removed from his left shoulder after the 2001 season. Ponson didn't pitch after Aug. 28 because of tendinitis in his right arm. Towers, who won eight games as a rookie, still had some swelling in the right ring finger he broke while swinging at a dugout phone in Toronto.

Rated the Orioles' fourth-best prospect by Baseball America, Riley said his arm has "never been better."

"This weekend is going to be a challenge for me, because I'm throwing three [bullpens] in a row. It's the first time I've done that. I'm going to have a chance to really test the arm and see where it's at."

Towers said he doesn't experience any pain in the hand, but he has been told the swelling and slight curvature in his finger probably will remain.

"That's something I've got to live with," he said. "It's weird, because I didn't expect it to take that long to heal. But it's not affecting me."

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