FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles' youth movement took another jolt yesterday, when the team announced outfield prospect Luis Matos broke the hamate bone in his left hand.
Matos, who suffered the injury Saturday, will undergo surgery and miss at least six weeks. The Orioles realize it could be longer because outfielder Jay Gibbons needed almost six months to recover after breaking his right hamate bone in August.
The timetable will become clearer next week, when Matos returns to Baltimore to see the team's physicians.
Matos, 23, missed most of last season after dislocating his left shoulder during spring training - in a feetfirst slide. He returned in August and started 26 of the final 31 games, batting .214.
This year, the Orioles had planned to send him to Triple-A Rochester so he could get more at-bats. But manager Mike Hargrove has gone on record saying Matos is ready, defensively, to play center field in the big leagues.
"It's real unfortunate," Hargrove said. "The last two things ... are really kind of freak injuries. I don't think you can sit here and say he's brittle, but certainly the last couple of years, he's had a black cloud hanging over him."
Matos underwent a magnetic resonance imaging exam yesterday then returned to the clubhouse looking forlorn.
His lone at-bat Saturday, against the Boston Red Sox in Port Charlotte, Fla., came in the ninth inning. With a 2-1 count, Matos swung and felt something pop in his hand. He said he felt pain immediately but finished the at-bat, lining out to right field.
"It's tough," he said. "But you need to swallow that because you can't do anything about it. So you can't be crying, can't be ticked. I just need to take it for how it is."
It's not uncommon for hitters to break their hamate bones, which usually sit harmlessly in the middle of the human palm. To fix the injury, surgeons remove the bone, and players can usually expect a quick return to full strength.
In Gibbons' case, he also tore cartilage along the outside of his right hand. Four months later, Gibbons tried playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic but soon stopped because his hand was still weak. "The hamate was fine after six weeks," Gibbons said. "It was the cartilage that gave me all the trouble."
With his strength returning, Gibbons had two hits yesterday, raising his spring average to .243.
Matos was batting .250 this spring, with four hits in 16 at-bats. After acquiring center fielder Chris Singleton from the Chicago White Sox during the off-season, the Orioles had no plans to rush Matos back to the big leagues.
But he certainly made an impression.
"Defensively," second baseman Jerry Hairston said, "he's as good as anybody in the game."
Matos made up for some of the at-bats he lost last season by playing winter ball in his native Puerto Rico. Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift said it won't hurt his progression to do the same thing this year, if necessary. "It's very unfortunate," Thrift said, "but he'll persevere."
Still, the thought of missing several more months wasn't sitting well with Matos. Last March 6, he dislocated the shoulder. One year and three days later, he hurt himself again.
"It's something with me and spring training," Matos said. "But I don't know what it is."