SARASOTA, Fla. — — It didn't take long for the Justin Duchscherer test drive to take a wrong turn.
The Orioles right-hander, who is trying to come back from two years of physical and emotional turmoil, had to be shut down on Saturday because of hip soreness and likely will be scratched from his first exhibition start on Wednesday.
This can't be considered a shocking development, considering Duchscherer's injury history and long-shot status in training camp, but it is a potentially significant reversal. He was a very effective starter and reliever for the Oakland A's before a string of hip surgeries and a bout with depression, so he had an outside chance to play a major role in the Orioles rotation.
Right now, the Orioles are hopeful that a couple of days off will alleviate the discomfort and Duchscherer can resume his comeback attempt, but it didn't play out Saturday like a run-of-the-mill bout of post-surgical soreness.
Duchscherer, when asked for an update, refused to comment, which is the kind of thing that raises a big red flag with the media, since players with minor issues almost always go out of their way to stress that it's "normal soreness" or that the time off is "just precautionary."
Teammate Derrek Lee, for instance, said just that after he had to sit out live batting practice on Saturday with residual soreness in his right thumb following his initial session on Friday afternoon. Brian Roberts also went out of his way on several occasions to stress that his neck soreness was not a major problem before returning to workouts on Saturday.
In a case like this, silence definitely is not golden.
President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who originally confirmed that Duchscherer had suffered a setback, didn't have a whole lot to offer either.
"We're going to give him 48 hours and see where he is,'' MacPhail said.
Sadly, there's a pretty good chance he'll be on his way for an MRI or making plans to return home. When you've had three operations on your hips and you're feeling significant discomfort after a handful of bullpen and BP sessions, well, let's just say that's not a great sign.
If Duchscherer doesn't pan out, there will be a certain group of cynical O's fans who will want to view that as a repudiation of the Orioles offseason, but that's a tough case to make. Duchscherer signed for $700,000, a tiny sum for a guy with a career 3.13 ERA and ample evidence that nobody gave him much of a chance to come all the way back.
Orioles officials always conceded privately that he was a lottery ticket: if they got a half season of him at his previous level of effectiveness, they would consider him the steal of the winter.
What this definitely is not is another Garrett Atkins situation. Atkins signed for real money ($4.5 million) and had no physical excuse for his inability to replicate the solid offensive numbers he put up a couple years earlier in Colorado.
Not surprisingly, it took no time at all for Kevin Millwood's name to come up in this conversation. He's still unsigned and has made it known that he's staying in shape in case somebody calls, but the Orioles seem satisfied that they have enough pitching depth to weather the loss of one potential starter.
"I'm comfortable with our depth,'' manager Buck Showalter said. "We'll see where it takes us. I don't think we're far enough down that road to feel like 'Duke' is not part of that yet. We'll know that in 48 hours, but I think we have some good candidates in camp, obviously, with him being one of them."
Showalter has not yet penciled in a new starter for Wednesday's exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies, but he admitted that pitching coach Mark Connor was already working on a contingent pitching plan. The replacement almost certainly would be top minor league prospect Zach Britton, who was scheduled to "piggyback" with Duchscherer the first couple times through the rotation.
Whether Duchscherer bounces back or not, Showalter said that the Orioles cannot complain about the injury situation two weeks into training camp.
"I think it's been good, especially with the pitchers,'' he said, animatedly tapping his knuckles on a wooden tabletop. "To have this number of people and to put them through the things that they go through in every spring training, it's been pretty clean health-wise so far."
Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.