SARASOTA, FLA. — Brian Roberts was back at second base taking infield early today, which appeared to be a sign that he was making progress in his recovery from a nagging lower back injury.
That appearance turned out to be deceiving.
Soon after Roberts returned to the Orioles clubhouse at Ed Smith Stadium, the team announced he was being sent back to Baltimore to see Johns Hopkins back specialist Dr. Lee Riley and, perhaps, pursue an altered course of treatment on the herniated disk that has limited his activity throughout spring training.
The team said that Roberts will receive an "epidural" a local pain-reducing injection to deal with the remaining soreness, but Roberts said later that will be just one of the possible options when he is examined on Monday.
"I'm just going there to see a back doctor and just make sure we're progressing in a way we need to be and if we need to ramp it up and do anything else, then we will,'' Roberts said.
If this latest revelation about his condition would seem to raise a red flag after several weeks of physical therapy, Roberts insists that he has suffered no setback and he still thinks he will be ready to play when the Orioles open the regular season on April 6 against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field.
"Certainly, my goals haven't changed for April 6,'' he said. "I don't think that anybody, from the trainers room to anybody else, I don't think their goals have changed at this point."
That all sounds nice, but Roberts admitted in almost the same breath that he has not made a lot of progress recently, and he did not hide his frustration with this latest series of events when he spoke to reporters before Sunday's exhibition game between the Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies.
He had to be shut down for several days after a possible reaction to his anti-inflammatory medication, and now this.
"It's gone a while and I'm at the same stage and we'd like to get over the hump a little bit more if we can,'' he said. "We'll see what the best method for that is."
Team officials had been resolute in their expressed confidence that Roberts will be back in time to open the season, but both Andy MacPhail and Dave Trembley seemed far less confident of that on Sunday. Both conceded that they are beginning to have doubts and are exploring alternatives. Reserve infielder Ty Wigginton has been getting increased playing time at second base and the front office is scouring the major leagues for a more conventional option.
"We're already started the process of lining up whatever options we need, depending on how long we think he's going to be out,'' MacPhail said. "Every day that goes by you have to be less confident because that's one less day to get at-bats and repetitions."
Trembley simply stated the obvious.
"It's on my mind,'' he said.
The situation is a study in mixed signals. Roberts says he has not had a setback, but he was swinging a bat a week ago and he hasn't since. The Orioles say they still think he'll make it back in time, but they are working on a Plan B. Roberts took infield on Sunday and looked very comfortable, yet he's headed back to Baltimore.
"I feel fine doing that sort of stuff,'' he said. "I still have a little bit of discomfort in certain areas and in certain ways, so those are the kinds of things that we're just going to check and make sure that we don't need to try to do anything different treatment wise.
"At this point, I don't have anything that gives me major trouble or discomfort. I mean, I've had some discomfort. Hitting was probably the biggest issue at that point. We're trying to push it forward as best as we can."
There is one thing that's crystal clear. Roberts would much rather have been in the spring lineup yesterday than lining up another doctor's appointment and heading for the airport.
"It's not fun,'' Roberts said. "It's certainly not the way you want to start. But the biggest key, like we've talked about is the 162 that really count. I'm still confident that I'm going to play in all of those."