FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. When Pat Hentgen underwent ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow last August, it seemed unlikely that the veteran pitcher would appear in a Baltimore Orioles uniform this season. There was even speculation that given Hentgen’s contract status he’s signed through this year with a club option for 2003 his Orioles career might be finished after a mere nine starts.
Now neither scenario may apply.
Proclaiming himself ahead of schedule, Hentgen yesterday threw a ball for the first time since going under the knife and said he thinks he can return “by the end of July or early August that’s the goal in my mind,” he said.
On the first day of full workouts for Baltimore pitchers and catchers, Hentgen conceded, “Whether those parameters fit the Oriole training staff’s is another question. But in my mind, I think that’s realistic and feasible.”
Last season’s Opening Day starter, Hentgen pitched well through mid-May with a 2-3 record and 3.47 ERA in nine appearances despite little run support. But during a May 16 start at Detroit, the right-hander felt a twinge in his elbow; three months later, Dr. James Andrews performed surgery on him in Birmingham, Ala.
The recovery time from the procedure commonly referred to as Tommy John surgery is generally anywhere from 12 to 20 months, though pitchers usually are not 100 percent for nearly two years. If Hentgen, 33, indeed returns late this summer, he would have recovered in one year.
“Dr. Andrews told me that the older veteran players actually have a better chance coming back from this surgery, believe it or not,” Hentgen said. “I thought, ‘How can that be?’ And he said because older guys have been in the league a lot longer, they know what it takes to rehab, versus the younger guys who think you can just show up.”
Hentgen took the first major step toward returning yesterday when he made 50 light tosses from a distance of 45 feet during workouts at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. The Orioles are cautiously optimistic.
“With this type of injury and surgery, you really want to stay true to the schedule and not try to rush things,” manager Mike Hargrove said. “But it’s good that he’s doing well and hasn’t had any setbacks.”
Hentgen isn’t the only Orioles pitcher attempting to come back from Tommy John surgery. Scott Erickson had the procedure in August 2000, originally hoped to return late last season but held back and now aims to earn this year’s Opening Day assignment. Left-hander Matt Riley had the surgery in September 2000 and is now trying to make the major league staff after 17 months of rehab.
So Hentgen’s projected midseason return is anything but definitive.
“We said the same thing about Scott Erickson this time last year,” Hargrove said. “So that’s why it’s important to stay to the program. When we get down to that part of it, we’ll see where he is and go on what the doctor says. If we get a couple months from [Hentgen], that would be gravy.”
Notes Hargrove was pleased with what he saw on the first day of workouts. “If first impressions are anything, they all give a good first impression,” he said. The manager was particularly encouraged to see pitchers Sidney Ponson and Jorge Julio in shape after shedding weight over the winter. …
All but two pitchers and catchers reported as scheduled. Pitcher Luis Rivera was involved in a minor traffic accident in Mexico, had to make a court appearance yesterday and is expected to be in camp tomorrow. Catcher Geronimo Gil, also a native of Mexico, is expected to arrive today.