- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2001

BALTIMORE The calendar will roll over from July to August tomorrow and not a day too soon for the Baltimore Orioles, who have seen their once-promising season collapse over the past 31 days and continue to receive bad news with each passing day.

The Orioles opened the month four games under .500 with spirits as high as they have been at Camden Yards in the last three years. Entering last night's game against the Texas Rangers the final makeup date for games postponed because of this month's train derailment near the ballpark the team with so much promise had fallen to 44-61, losers in 19 of their last 24 games.

Making matters worse, the Orioles learned that right-handed pitcher Pat Hentgen likely will need elbow ligament replacement surgery that would sideline their staff ace for more than a year.

Coupled with the mysterious knee injury suffered by right-hander Willis Roberts last weekend in Anaheim and the unlikelihood that the Orioles will complete any deals before today's 4 p.m. trading deadline, yesterday's news concerning Hentgen only places a definitive stamp on one of the worst months in franchise history.

"It doesn't look real optimistic right now," manager Mike Hargrove said. "Obviously, surgery is a very real possibility."

Out since mid-May with a sprained right elbow, the 32-year-old Hentgen was nearing completion of his rehabilitation when he experienced pain during a throwing session Thursday in Texas. Shut down for two days, Hentgen tried to throw again Sunday in Anaheim but had to stop after seven painful pitches.

He will be examined by orthopedic specialist James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., sometime next month, at which time he likely will undergo Tommy John surgery to replace the damaged ligament in his right elbow.

"I just feel that we've exhausted everything to this point," said Hentgen, who was 2-3 with a 3.47 ERA in nine starts this year. "I've tried my best to get back on the mound, but I just can't with the way it feels."

Originally classified by the Orioles as a minor injury that wouldn't even necessitate a trip to the disabled list, Hentgen's injury eventually was diagnosed as a sprained ligament in late May. The team then said his return would come in 4-6 weeks, or shortly after the All-Star break. But few pitchers return from elbow ligament injuries so quickly, and most require season-ending surgery.

Orioles right-hander Scott Erickson underwent Tommy John surgery last Aug. 8 and has not yet returned, signaling that Hentgen (a nine-year veteran who signed a two-year, $9 million contract with Baltimore this spring) may not only miss the rest of this season but next year as well.

"I haven't been the greatest pitcher, but I've been durable, and I've always taken pride in that," said Hentgen, who had been on the DL just once in his career. "So it's disappointing from my own personal standpoint because durability is something I usually bring to the table, and I just wasn't able to do it. I go out there, try to compete and give my team a chance to win. Not being able to do that is very bothersome."

Hentgen's projected return in the next few weeks had some wondering whether Roberts, a right-hander who has been both dazzling and disastrous in his rookie season, might be headed to the bullpen and given a chance to close. That scenario now appears unlikely, all the more so after Roberts suffered a strange knee injury Saturday night in Anaheim.

During the sixth inning of Baltimore's 6-4 loss to the Angels, the 25-year-old suddenly collapsed to the ground clutching his right knee. Complaining of weakness and a slight twinge in the knee, Roberts had to be carted off the field and examined by the Anaheim team doctor. X-rays taken both in California and back in Baltimore by Orioles orthopedist Michael Jacobs showed no structural damage, and Roberts has not yet been scratched from his next scheduled start Thursday against Tampa Bay.

"The doctor said everything is fine," said Roberts, who first felt weakness while jogging two weeks ago. "I never felt that before in a game."

If Roberts cannot make his next start, Hargrove said he likely will turn to reliever Calvin Maduro, who looked impressive in an emergency start last week in Texas.

Speculation has been rampant over the last month that the Orioles were looking to trade a starting pitcher whether Sidney Ponson, Jason Johnson or Jose Mercedes in hopes of acquiring a much-needed bat. The Hentgen and Roberts situations, however, have made that scenario highly unlikely as the non-waiver trading deadline arrives this afternoon.

Asked whether the injuries would have an effect on his last-minute discussions, vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said, "It would make me more prone to trade for [a starting pitcher] if I could."

And less prone to give one up? "I would say yes," Thrift replied.

Several teams have expressed interest in Jeff Conine, who can play first base, third base or the outfield, but Thrift does not appear willing to part with one of his top offensive players. He continues to say he isn't looking to trade a player like Conine but would like to acquire someone of that caliber.

Other players drawing attention include outfielder/shortstop Melvin Mora and veteran relievers Buddy Groom and Mike Trombley.

"I would say we've had the same amount [of interest from teams] as we've had in the past," Thrift said. "It just happens that the players they want are the ones we can't afford to trade."

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