SARASOTA, Fla. — — Questions about the health of several of the Orioles' top players dominated conversation at Ed Smith Stadium Thursday as the club learned that first baseman Derrek Lee and starter Justin Duchscherer could get game action soon, while pitchers Brian Matusz and Koji Uehara could be sidelined for a little while.
Uehara, who is expected to battle newly acquired Kevin Gregg for the closer role this spring, got a cortisone shot in his right elbow after experiencing what he described as "arm fatigue" in recent days. Uehara has had elbow problems in the past, but said that he's not concerned about his latest issues and he is hopeful to be back on the mound within a week.
After throwing two scoreless innings Thursday against the Minnesota Twins in his 2011 Grapefruit League debut, Matusz will fly to Philadelphia Friday morning to have a wart removed from the middle finger of his pitching hand.
"It's kind of on the outside of the [middle] finger," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "The only time it comes into play is on a breaking ball when it comes off of that. I think the plans are — they could change — for him to take it off tomorrow with some kind of laser procedure, where it's not that long. He could maybe miss a start. We'll know a lot more after he gets back from there."
Showalter, whose team dropped its first exhibition game with a 2-0 loss to the Twins, didn't seem overly concerned about the long-term effects on either pitcher. However, the developments certainly offset the news from earlier in the day that Lee and Duchscherer, two offseason additions aimed at buoying the offense and the rotation, respectively, are nearing a return.
Lee took batting practice again Thursday and he is tentatively scheduled to make his Orioles debut Saturday against the Red Sox at Ed Smith Stadium. Lee had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his right thumb in November, and the final test for him is to get in a game and face live pitching.
"We will see where we are Saturday morning, after batting practice," Showalter said. "But so far, so good."
Duchscherer, meanwhile, threw 20 pitches from the mound Thursday for the first time since experiencing recurring hip soreness last Saturday. He's had three different surgeries on his hips over the past four years, and has made only five big league starts since 2008.
"It felt perfectly fine," Duchscherer said. "It felt like my hip was 100 percent."
Duchscherer said that he will take it "light" Friday and then throw either live batting practice or another bullpen session Saturday. If all goes well with that, he could possibly start pitching in games next week.
That's encouraging news to the Orioles and a little surprising, especially after Duchscherer admitted last Saturday to being extremely concerned and said that his frustration level with his continued hip soreness was a "10 out of 10."
"[A] big relief for me," Duchscherer said. "Obviously, I didn't sign and come here to miss time. As a professional athlete, the worst thing in the world is when you're missing time and you're not helping your team. I've had a rough go the last couple years and that's not my goal this year. I want to throw 200 innings and win 20 games and do all the things I've always aspired to do. That's my goal."
Starting pitching remains the Orioles' biggest question mark, so any extended success that the club could get from the oft-injured Duchscherer would be a boost, and any long-term injury to a pitcher like Matusz, who will likely be the team's No. 2 or 3 starter, would be a huge blow to the team's hope of improving significantly this season.
That's one of the reasons that the Orioles will send Matusz to Philadelphia to have the wart removed now.
"We don't want this thing to be something that really shows its head up in the middle of the season and now he misses more than one start, or even a start in the [regular] season," Showalter said. "It won't be anything that he couldn't come back from. At the very worst, the way I understand it, if they see it and analyze what they think they're going to analyze, he'll maybe miss a start, probably miss a start to be on the safe side."
Uehara, 35, is a bigger concern simply because of his extensive injury history. The right-hander has been on the disabled list four times over the previous two seasons. That included a nearly four-month stint on the DL in 2009 with right elbow tendonitis.
Uehara said that the cortisone shot is just precautionary and admitted that he's had several of them in the past to deal with the elbow discomfort.
"It's not even serious. I'm not concerned about it," he said through interpreter Jiwon Bang. "I'm just being on the safe side. I'm not really worried. I think I can come back soon."
Uehara gave up a run in one inning of work in Monday's exhibition opener at Bradenton. He was originally scheduled to pitch Thursday before the club decided to give him the cortisone injection. It stands to reason that while Uehara is out, he'll lose ground in the closer competition with Gregg, who threw his second scoreless inning Thursday.
"We were talking about it for a day or two," Showalter said. "You've got so many of those [shots] you can take in a given year. He's feeling fine, throwing the ball good, but after talking to him and the interpreters, the doctors and everybody decided to do it now earlier in camp. During the season it would be a lot less than a week. A lot of times you get them done during the All-Star break to get them on an off day. We'll see. I don't think he's going to be out any period of time that would keep him from being ready to go on Opening Day."