- The Washington Times - Monday, April 1, 2002

BALTIMORE They enjoyed a relatively uneventful spring, devoid of any sagas over a superstar's arthritic hip or a legend's pending retirement. Instead, the Baltimore Orioles simply went out every day and played good, solid baseball, resulting in a franchise-record 20 exhibition victories.
All of which means absolutely nothing.
It's one thing to win spring training games. It's another to carry that success over to the regular season, which commences today when the Orioles play host to the four-time defending American League champion New York Yankees at Camden Yards.
Baltimore, coming off a fourth-straight fourth-place finish in the AL East, hasn't entered a season with such low expectations since it lost 107 games in 1988. And with nearly every preseason prognosticator anticipating another fourth-place (or in some cases a fifth-place) finish in 2002, the Orioles aren't going to convert many disbelievers just because they played well in March.
"It's kind of nice to be the underdog," said pitcher Scott Erickson, who makes his first start today since undergoing elbow ligament replacement surgery 20 months ago. "As bad as we are, they're trying to say we're going to battle just to stay out of the cellar. I think everyone wants to go out and show that we're a better team than that."
Given the daunting early season schedule staring them in the face, it won't be easy for the Orioles to shed their losing image.
Baltimore opens with three games against the Yankees, who will send six-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens to the mound today, followed by two of the most imposing pitchers of the last decade left-hander David Wells and former Orioles ace Mike Mussina.
Things don't get any easier once the Yankees leave town, because the new-and-improved Boston Red Sox come to Camden Yards this weekend. Baltimore gets a brief break next week against the perennial AL East bottom-feeders, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but the Orioles follow that series with road trips to Chicago (where the White Sox are favored to win the AL Central) and New York (where the Yankees await).
"You're going up against the World Series team from last year and a team that's vastly improved since last year," Baltimore first baseman Jeff Conine said of this week's schedule. "They're arguably the two toughest teams we could face in the opening week."
By the time they get to next Monday, some of the Orioles' younger players might not know what hit them.
"You certainly can't base a season on the first week," shortstop Mike Bordick said. "But shoot, we've got to play the Yankees. You've got to go through them. If we want to be a successful team, every day we have to challenge ourselves. And this should be a great test for us."
Perhaps no one in the Orioles clubhouse has been anticipating this day more than Erickson, the 34-year-old right-hander who underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow in August 2000.
Erickson's last appearance in a major league game was July 25, 2000, at Camden Yards, against this same Yankees team. Little did the intense competitor know how much time would pass before he stood on the mound again.
"I've been concentrating on being ready for Opening Day probably since Christmas," said Erickson, who went 3-1 with a 4.15 ERA this spring and was second in the AL to teammate Sidney Ponson with 30⅓ innings pitched. "I tried to focus everything I've been doing on getting ready for [today]. So in a sense, it's much bigger than any other game because I haven't pitched in so long."
The Orioles have seen several key players return from injury this spring (Erickson, Bordick, David Segui and Jay Gibbons), but they have not avoided the injury bug entirely. Starting left fielder Marty Cordova was placed on the 15-day disabled list yesterday with a strained right quadriceps, throwing a kink into manager Mike Hargrove's Opening Day lineup.
Cordova, Baltimore's only significant free agent signing this winter (he agreed to a three-year, $9.1 million deal in December), sat out the last three exhibition games of the spring after aggravating the injury, though at the time it was not thought to be serious.
Melvin Mora will replace Cordova in left field today, and outfielder Larry Bigbie, who was optioned to Class AAA Rochester on Saturday, was recalled to fill out the roster.
Cordova was placed on the DL retroactive to Thursday, so he will be eligible to return April 12.
"We didn't think rushing him was worth the gamble at this point," Hargrove said. "He's still iffy."


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