Thus far, Gibbons' right wrist hasn't been bone of contention

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Three surgeries later, he says there's no pain

Baseball

March 16, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Except for the occasional stiffness, Jay Gibbons is having no problems this spring with the right wrist that underwent three surgeries and became a growing concern for the Orioles as his availability was reduced.

"No worries," he said.

With a player long on power potential, the Orioles are grateful for such a short answer.

Gibbons hit 28 home runs last season despite nagging pain in the wrist, which required surgery the previous year to remove a broken hamate bone. A second procedure removed two sutures that pressed against a nerve, and a third cleared up an infection.

Needing as much help offensively as they can get, especially with David Segui's right hand in a removable plastic cast, the Orioles have fingers crossed whenever the subject turns to Gibbons' wrist.

"It feels good now. It really does," Gibbons said. "I haven't had much trouble with it. It might stiffen a little after practice, but it's very occasional. The most important thing is I don't feel it when I'm swinging. And it's still getting stronger. It's not as strong as my left wrist yet, but there's no pain."

Gibbons had two hits and drove in two runs in Wednesday's 6-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox. He's batting .297 (11-for-37) with one homer and seven RBIs.

When critiquing Gibbons, it seems that more attention is given to his health than his statistics.

"I don't even really think about it," he said, "unless I'm asked about it."

Maybe he would rather talk about his defense, which showed improvement last season but still won't win him any Gold Gloves. Gibbons' throws became stronger and more accurate after he cut back on his bench presses, which lowered the muscle mass in his chest and gave him more range of motion. He's still learning how to get a better read on the ball and take shorter routes to it.

"I'm not going to get much better," he said. "I'm not ever going to be Gary Matthews out there, but if I can improve on my jumps a little more, maybe I'll get to a couple more balls a year. The more I play out there, the more comfortable I feel. I'm going to get a little better, but I think I've nearly peaked."

So much of Gibbons remains a work in progress, which is to be expected of a Rule 5 draft pick with only one full season in the majors.

Gibbons, who led the Orioles last season with a .482 slugging average, hit six of his first seven homers on the first pitch. Then it became 10 of his first 15, and ended at 12 of 28. If there's a single goal that Gibbons has set, and he doesn't compile a list of them, it's to become more patient.

"I'll try to work more walks, get more relaxed with runners in scoring position, stuff like that," he said.

To be a regular in the lineup, Gibbons also must hit left-handers or risk falling into a platoon arrangement. Last season, he batted .235 with two homers in 98 at-bats vs. left-handers, and .250 with 26 homers in 392 at-bats vs. right-handers.

"That's a definite. I really want to hit better against lefties this year. I know I'm capable of it," he said. "It will all come together."

Hentgen sore, but OK

One day after taking a line drive off his thumb, pitcher Pat Hentgen had no problem flexing his hand. He also didn't have a good reason why he exposed it to a baseball traveling at such a dangerous speed.

Hentgen was hit by Miguel Cairo's liner during the fourth inning of Friday's 7-5 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. Cruising at that point, he gave up four runs in the inning and two more in the fifth.

"It was just coincidence," he said.

Glancing at the thumb, which isn't discolored or swollen, Hentgen said, "It's a little sore but it's nothing bad."

So was it instinct that made him reach for the ball?

"No," he said. "Stupidity."

Working with Cust

Acquired this past week from the Colorado Rockies, Jack Cust started his first game as an Oriole yesterday, going 1-for-4 with an RBI as the team's designated hitter. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said he wants to give Cust a few days to get his feet on the ground before putting him in the outfield.

With a father who runs his own hitting school in New Jersey, Cust has taken more swings in his life than the average prospect. But the scouting report says that swing tends to get long, so Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley is working with him. Hargrove would also like to see Cust use the whole field instead of pulling everything.

"We've seen his swing over the past couple days get shorter and shorter, and he had a real good day in [batting practice]," Hargrove said. "He's got a lot of power. When he hits the ball, it stays hit. I think he's got a chance to be a real good hitter because he's got real good hand-eye coordination."

Sun staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this article.

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