- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 28, 2002

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. It has been 18 months since Scott Erickson last pitched for the Baltimore Orioles, so it wasn't surprising that the right-hander's every move was closely monitored during yesterday's intrasquad game at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.
And after watching the 34-year-old toss two scoreless innings in his first game-like appearance since undergoing Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, the Orioles were cautiously optimistic.
"Ask me again in three weeks," manager Mike Hargrove said, "but it looks like he's throwing as well as he did in his last bullpen [session] in Baltimore last winter. There's not a dramatic difference. If there was, there'd be a concern. But we haven't seen one so far."
Erickson, who underwent ligament replacement surgery Aug.8, 2000, was restricted to throwing only fastballs and changeups, so the Orioles don't want to place too much weight on this performance. In two innings, he gave up two hits a double off the right-field wall by Mike Bordick and a single up the middle by Larry Bigbie along with a couple more hard-hit balls. But he departed the field pain-free and left a strong impression on his teammates.
"He looked good to me," said Jerry Hairston, who saw six pitches from Erickson and ultimately struck out on a 3-2 cut fastball. "His ball was sinking as good as I thought it would be. The key to pitching is not letting the hitters be comfortable. And that wasn't really a comfortable at-bat. But he looked outstanding. I'm excited he's back."
The true test for Erickson, who is expected to be Baltimore's Opening Day starter, will come as he starts building up his inning count during the exhibition schedule, which starts tonight.
After spending the last two weeks perfecting the monotonous fielding, base running and throwing drills that are synonymous with spring training, the Orioles finally get their chance to put it all together when they play host to the Montreal Expos in the opener for both teams.
As far as the players are concerned, it's about time.
"It's going to be nice playing other people besides ourselves," Hairston said. "There's nothing like a real game."
While there aren't many open competitions in the Baltimore camp this spring, the battle for the final spot in the starting rotation may not be decided until the end of March, with as many as five or six pitchers in the mix.
Hargrove lists Calvin Maduro, Sean Douglass, Rick Bauer, John Stephens, Steve Bechler and non-roster invitee Rodrigo Lopez among those in the mix for the No.5 rotation gig. Maduro, Douglass and Bauer have an edge, based on their previous major league experience.
Maduro, 27, was the big surprise of the pitching staff last year, making 22 appearances (12 starts) and posting a 4.23 ERA. If he is beaten out for the rotation spot, Maduro still will likely make the team as a long reliever.
Douglass, who won't turn 23 until April28, got a brief taste of life in the big leagues last fall when he made four starts, going 2-1 with a 5.31 ERA.
"I feel like if I pitch well, it's there for me to take," Douglass said. "If something happens and I don't make the team, then I'll go back to [Class AAA] Rochester, I guess. But hopefully that doesn't happen and I'm the one pitching the best at the time when they have to make the decision."
Bauer, 25, also made his major league debut last September, earning six starts down the stretch. Having already pitched 174⅓ innings between Rochester and Class AA Bowie before his promotion, Bauer struggled at times in Baltimore, finishing with an 0-5 record and 4.64 ERA (though he did have three quality starts in his first five appearances).
The wild card in the bunch could be Lopez, a 26-year-old right-hander who previously pitched in the San Diego Padres' organization and dazzled the Orioles this winter. Lopez went 10-2 in the Mexican League and tossed a four-hit shutout against Puerto Rico in the championship game of the Caribbean Series.
The Orioles, of course, have a history of finding previously unknown pitchers from the winter leagues and turning them into major leaguers. In 2000, Jose Mercedes signed as a minor league free agent and wound up leading the staff with 14 victories. Last year Willis Roberts made the club after an impressive spring and now is a leading candidate to be the closer.


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