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Left-hander Jimmy Key has shown some improvement since waking up with severe neck stiffness on Thursday, and said last night he hopes to start today.

"I couldn't move my head yesterday," Key said, "but today it's better and -- hopefully -- it will be much better tomorrow. I guess I'd have to say I'm probable/hopeful."

Key was moved back in the rotation after experiencing the muscle spasms in the right side of his neck. Scott Erickson started in his place last night, but manager Davey Johnson has not said who would start today if the stiffness again keeps Key off the mound.

"I don't want to think about other choices right now," Johnson said before last night's game. "He seems to be doing a lot better today. No matter who it would be, it wouldn't be as good as bringing Jimmy Key back."

Key has been one of the cornerstones of the Orioles' early-season success. He is 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA and had answered some nagging questions about the durability of his surgically repaired left shoulder, only to be struck with the freak neck injury. "I've had a stiff neck before," he said, "but never anything to this extent."

The club has six starting pitchers, but the options for today's game are limited. Johnson could bring back Shawn Boskie on two days' rest after Wednesday's 3 1/3-inning relief appearance or go to Rule 5 draftee Mike Johnson, who pitched an inning that same night.

The club also could move Mike Mussina up a day -- though that seems highly unlikely in light of his spring elbow problem -- or bring someone up from the minors.

Kamieniecki's next start?

Scott Kamieniecki has given up only one run in each of his last two starts, covering 12 innings. His ERA is down to 3.18, but when he'll make another appearance is unclear.

Barring a change in the rotation, Kamieniecki's next start would be Tuesday at Minnesota. Rocky Coppinger's scheduled turn is Monday, which is an off day.

"I haven't even looked that far," Johnson said. "I'm looking at the bodies I've got available today. But he's pitched great."

Kamieniecki doesn't worry about long layoffs; it comes with filling the last spot in the rotation.

"It's better to have one guy messed up than all five," he said.

Rhodes on a roll

Left-hander Arthur Rhodes turned in another outstanding performance in middle relief Thursday night, giving up just two hits over four innings and striking out five. He has retired 32 of 38 batters since Mickey Tettleton hit a bases-empty home run on April 5 for the only earned run that Rhodes has relinquished this year.

"I feel good," Rhodes said. "I've got nothing on my mind, so I'm able to go out there and think only about pitching and do my job."

Why didn't Ripken bunt?

The Orioles had a chance to win Thursday night's game in the ninth inning after Boston reliever Heathcliff Slocumb allowed the first two batters to reach, but the inning came apart when Cal Ripken grounded into a double play.

It was an intriguing situation. Johnson has been saying all spring that the 1997 club is more versatile than last year's team, but he chose not to call for a bunt.

"I had one of my best clutch hitters up there and a lot of our other guys are struggling," Johnson said last night. "If Cal had gotten a strike on him, I probably would have put the bunt on. But when the count was 2-0, I was not going to take the bat out of his hands."

Wings' Haynes 'outstanding'

Jimmy Haynes continued to impress, leading Triple-A Rochester to a 3-0 victory at Syracuse last night. The International League strikeout leader had five and allowed five hits in seven innings.

The right-hander struck out 10 in 6 2/3 innings on Sunday and has allowed 20 hits in 31 innings. Yesterday afternoon Syd Thrift, the Orioles' director of player development, said Haynes had "three games, back-to-back, that were outstanding."

"He's got his good fastball, good curveball, good changeup," Thrift said. "His delivery is back where it was. And he has that good look in his eyes. That's confidence. He's got that determined focus."

Around the horn

Right-hander Alan Mills will undergo a nerve conductor test on Monday to determine the extent of the nerve damage he suffered in a collision April 11. Milestones: Johnson won his 900th game as a manager last night and Ripken played in his 2,400th career major-league game. When he takes the field today for his 2,401st game, he'll tie Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle for 57th place all time.

Pub Date: 4/26/97

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