Key reaches end of his long road back Out since May 20, he will start tomorrow; Hammonds may be forced back on DL; Notebook


DETROIT -- Jimmy Key's long, uncertain road back finally reached its destination yesterday when the club activated its No. 3 starter from the disabled list. Key, who has missed more than two months with an inflamed left rotator cuff, is scheduled to start tomorrow night against the Detroit Tigers, his first appearance since a May 20 start in New York.

The roster move coincided with the release of reliever Norm Charlton. For the first time since May 14, the Orioles' Opening Day rotation is intact. It's been that way for only three days since April 16, when Mike Mussina's wart burst and forced him to the disabled list.

"I didn't tell [the media] what I was thinking because I didn't want to say something and then not have it happen," said Key, who early in his recovery questioned whether he would ever return. "But I was pointing toward Aug. 1. That's when I felt I could be back if everything went according to plan."

Key's admittedly "aggressive" rehabilitation culminated last week in a five-inning simulated game pitched in the Camden Yards bullpen and a six-inning outing last Friday at Single-A Frederick. Club officials had expected him to pitch only five innings but Key stretched a low pitch count beyond the projection.

Key, 37, still pitches with discomfort in the shoulder but says it does not affect his velocity. Last week validated his control.

"I thought I was pretty much where I needed to be," he said. "I was pleased [at Frederick]. I guess we'll find out this week."

Manager Ray Miller contemplated placing Key in the bullpen for a week but Key resisted the idea. Miller will hold Key to a 75-pitch count tomorrow -- typically a five-inning start. To make room for Key in the rotation, Miller bumped Doug Drabek to the bullpen, a move that likely will become permanent. Drabek and Pete Smith will serve the redundant role of right-handed long relief.

"That gives me two innings every other night if I need it," said Miller. "That's not a bad position to be in."

Hammonds hurting again

The disturbing and painful trend continues for outfielder Jeffrey Hammonds: two days up and an indefinite number down. Miller conceded that Hammonds may again land on the disabled list, this time because of a painful left wrist that flared during Sunday's appearance against the Seattle Mariners.

Hammonds started the last two games of the series against Seattle but was removed from Sunday's sixth inning after Miller noticed him wince on a swing.

The move could coincide with designated hitter Harold Baines (pulled hamstring) coming off the disabled list, a move that could occur this weekend in Kansas City.

Hammonds, who owns only nine at-bats since May 30, was disabled retroactive to June 3 through July 10 because of a herniated disk in his upper back. Following a three-game rehab at Bowie, he returned prematurely and had to shut down for almost two weeks.

"We're going to have to find out something soon," Miller said.

Crowded house

Despite their team's mediocre record, Orioles fans continue to pile into Camden Yards.

The Orioles have sold 3.6 million tickets this season, leaving about 100,000 available for the remaining 25 home games. This is the fourth time in franchise history the Orioles have reached 3.6 million in sales, including the 1993, 1996 and 1997 seasons.

Of the 25 home games, 15 have only scattered single tickets remaining. The most available dates are the Aug. 17-18 games against Minnesota, Aug. 19-20 against Tampa Bay, Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 against Chicago, Sept. 14-15 against Texas, and Sept. 16-17 against Boston.

Second-round pick signed

The Orioles agreed to terms with their second-round draft pick, right-hander Ben Knapp, 18, and assigned him to the Gulf Coast League rookie team in Sarasota, Fla.

Knapp, the son of former major-league pitcher Chris Knapp, went 4-5 with a 2.85 ERA as a senior at Oviedo (Fla.) High School. He allowed 67 hits in 71 innings, walking 36 and striking out 73. Knapp, 6 feet 7, was rated as the 18th-best pitcher in the draft by Baseball America.

The Orioles have signed 23 of their 51 selections, including their first three picks. In addition to Knapp, first-rounder Rick Elder and Mamon Tucker, both outfielders, also have signed. Tucker was the Orioles' sandwich pick, No. 39 overall, as compensation for losing Randy Myers to Toronto.

Around the horn

Cal Ripken played in his 2,649th career game, tying him with Joe Morgan for 26th place on the all-time list. Gabe Alvarez's grand slam was Detroit's first since Bobby Higginson hit one last Sept. 6 against Anaheim. The Tigers are honoring the memory of Dr. Clarence Livingood, a team physician since 1966, by flying the center-field flags at half-staff during the Orioles series. Livingood, 86, died Monday. Triple-A Rochester put outfielder Ricky Otero on the disabled list and recalled Eugene Kingsale from Double-A Bowie.

Pub Date: 7/29/98

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