- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2003

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. When Pat Hentgen signed with the Baltimore Orioles late in 2000, he was looking forward to pitching with a fellow right-hander he admired, Scott Erickson. In Erickson, he saw a guy like himself: reliable, if not spectacular, and a real innings-eater.
Yet neither former 20-game winner has shown that form over the last two seasons. Both have made Opening Day starts, Erickson last season, but have suffered through injuries the rest of the time. Now they begin spring training as question marks. The Orioles hope they can return to pre-injury form but are prepared if they cannot, with Rick Helling and Jason Johnson ready to assume starting spots.
Erickson, 35, missed all of the 2001 season after undergoing ligament-replacement surgery the previous August and was ineffective last season. Hentgen, 34, had the same surgery one year and one day later after starting just nine games in 2001 and then struggled last September when he returned to the mound.
"It's incredible," Hentgen said. "When I got here, I'm all excited and he has Tommy John [surgery] and he finally comes back and I have Tommy John. It was something we've talked about over and over again because of the similarities."
If both are injury-free and pitch effectively now, they'll likely make the rotation. If they aren't, they could find themselves in the bullpen.
Erickson is the primary concern. He was at Sidney Ponson's charity softball tournament in Aruba last November when he felt a twinge in his shoulder like the ones he experienced throughout the second half of the season and believed was tendinitis. He was examined in mid-December and diagnosed with a partially torn labrum, something he apparently had pitched through from July until the end of the season.
Erickson chose to rehabilitate the shoulder to try to strengthen the muscles around the weak area instead of having surgery; he said regardless of whether he had the surgery or not, it's 50-50 if he can stay pain-free through the season. He says he feels great but concedes he has yet to really test his arm and doesn't know what to expect.
"It's a little bit up in the air, but it feels great, so that's all I can go by," Erickson said. "As long as there aren't any problems with it, I don't think I'll ever have to have surgery, which is a bonus."
Early last May, Erickson's record was 3-2, and it was expected the Orioles would try to deal him before the trading deadline. Then he hit a tailspin, finished 5-12 with a 5.55 ERA while getting little run support and began pressing out of frustration. Not wanting to yield to the pain, Erickson probably worsened his condition by continuing to lift weights and pitch.
"Scotty's not afraid to work," manager Mike Hargrove said. "It's a lot easier to scale people back than it is to push them forward. Scotty probably learned a valuable lesson last year that more hard work is not better necessarily."
Hentgen, though, is hoping his hard work pays off. Last season he returned from the elbow surgery to make four September starts, going 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA. Dedicated to making up for it, he took the Orioles' buyout of his option year and, after consulting pitching coach Mark Wiley, started his throwing program two months early in November to get ready for spring training.
"Bottom line is, you come to spring training and you have to do good," Hentgen said. "If you don't do good, they find someone else that will. You play your whole career that way."
And Erickson and Hentgen left no doubt that they plan to be starters. Hargrove indicated yesterday they are competing with Johnson and Helling for the fourth and fifth slots in the rotation.
"I'm not going to look at [relieving] until I have to, so my goal is to be a starting pitcher," Erickson said. "At this time in my career, I'm still good enough to be a starting pitcher."
Notes
The Orioles agreed to terms with starting right-hander Ponson on a one-year contract worth $4.25million, avoiding a salary arbitration hearing scheduled for next week. The club had offered $3.9million and Ponson sought $4.75million. That leaves utility man Melvin Mora, who has a hearing scheduled for Wednesday, as the only remaining salary arbitration case for the club. …
Catcher Geronimo Gil is expected to arrive today after remaining in Mexico until yesterday to be with his ailing mother. … Hargrove said he would like to take a look at infielder Brian Roberts, who is coming off a strong showing in winter ball, in center field. …
Among the position players in camp early are Roberts, Gary Matthews Jr. and Brook Fordyce.

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