Ainsworth takes long road back

Coming off elbow surgery, pitcher now in Aberdeen hoping to return to majors

Baseball

August 06, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Before he can make it back to the Orioles and try to salvage another lost season, Kurt Ainsworth will return to his roots - the ones that run all the way down to the lowest depths of the minor leagues. Maybe something good will grow this time.

Ainsworth made the trip last night from Sarasota, Fla., to Aberdeen, where he'll start Sunday for the Single-A IronBirds of the New York-Penn League. Coming off elbow surgery two months ago, he'll be restricted to 50 pitches.

Assuming he's no longer burdened by the same painful arm and shattered confidence - both detrimental to staying in the Orioles' rotation - Ainsworth will complete his rehabilitation at Aberdeen and likely reenter Triple-A Ottawa's roster.

In time, however, he could be pitching for the Orioles again, as he did seven times this year before a 9.68 ERA in 30 2/3 innings led to his demotion.

"That would be the ideal case," he said, "and show them that I'm a better pitcher than I was earlier in the season."

Ainsworth, 25, was limited to three relief appearances with the Orioles last September after recovering from shoulder surgery, but he's looking to be a starter again in 2004.

"Last year was a couple innings at the end, and that was kind of like my rehab," he said. "Now I'll have my rehab in August, and I'll be able to go strong in September if they need me."

The Orioles finally lost patience with Ainsworth after a May 14 start against the Anaheim Angels, when he allowed nine runs in 1 1/3 innings. Shut down in Ottawa, he underwent surgery to remove inflamed tissue in the elbow joint.

"It's a very simple procedure," said trainer Richie Bancells. "It's not like a repair."

Ainsworth believes the injury is linked to the stress fracture in his right shoulder that occurred while pitching for the Giants last year. He was on the disabled list when the Orioles acquired him in a non-waiver deadline trade for Sidney Ponson.

"I got in such bad habits pitching through all that pain that I ended up hurting my elbow," he said. "It's hard to repeat the same, good motion over and over because I had so many bad habits from last year. But I've gotten to work on my mechanics a lot and I feel really good. I've been locating the ball better than I have the last couple of years."

The Orioles put Ainsworth on a five-week throwing program at their minor league complex in Sarasota. They had the choice of sending him to Aberdeen or Bluefield, their other short-season affiliate.

"Hopefully I'll only throw one or two games in Single-A," he said. "It's just getting my pitch count up. Then I can move up and get ready for the big leagues."

Ainsworth hasn't pitched this low since he signed with the Giants in 1999 and reported to Salem-Keizer of the rookie Northwest League. If memories come flooding back, the dampness isn't likely to warm his heart.

"It's kind of hard to set up the hitters in those leagues," he said. "They just swing at everything."

Ainsworth isn't fooling himself into thinking he can turn this season into something magical beyond his disappearance from the Orioles. He was the No. 3 starter coming out of spring training but allowed seven runs in 1 2/3 innings in his debut.

The climb has been uphill since then. He'd settle for tired legs over a fatigued arm.

"I can make the season better, but I don't know about making it good just because we had such high expectations this year, especially the ones I put on myself," he said.

"I feel like I let the team down a little bit. It's a matter of coming in and proving that I'm better than I was at the beginning of the year and hopefully regain some of that confidence and get in the rotation next year and start fresh."

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