Erickson throws off more doubts; 16-minute session brings rehab assignment closer


Continuing to progress faster than club officials had anticipated, pitcher Scott Erickson threw in the bullpen again yesterday and is drawing closer to a rehab assignment in the minor leagues.

Erickson's right elbow withstood a mound session that lasted about 16 minutes and included some off-speed stuff. It was his fourth time throwing since having arthroscopic surgery on March 3 to remove bone chips. He previously had not gone longer than about 12 minutes.

"It was very encouraging," said pitching coach Sammy Ellis. "He threw some changeups, some breaking balls. Not many, but a few. It looks like it's coming together. He's having no pain and he has full range of motion."

Ellis stressed, however, that yesterday's session didn't bring the club any closer to setting a timetable for Erickson's return. He's scheduled to throw again tomorrow, with the next hurdle being the ability to increase his level of effort.

"The plan is to get his velocity up to where we think it should be," said manager Mike Hargrove. "We're going to test that out probably sometime within the next week to 10 days. Once we get it up to where we think it should be, then we'll probably send him out on a rehab [assignment]. We're real close to our medical people turning him over to the baseball people.

"We're looking for arm strength as much as anything."

They're also looking for a quick return and the innings that Erickson can provide to a fragile rotation. He's averaged 231 1/3 in his four full seasons with the Orioles, but was unable to pitch in an exhibition game this spring before going on the disabled list.

Hargrove was forced to move Sidney Ponson into Erickson's slot behind Mike Mussina despite a troublesome spring from the Aruban right-hander. Pat Rapp was elevated to third after being signed as a free agent to serve as the fifth starter. And Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes were installed at the end of the rotation despite not having a major-league start between them last season.

Initial estimates had Erickson returning in early May, but it's possible he could return in the final week of April.

Right-leaning bench

The only lineup change from Opening Day was the insertion of Jeff Conine (1-for-4) as the designated hitter, putting Harold Baines on the bench and giving the Orioles a left-handed pinch hitter. They were lacking that element Monday because Baines started and backup catcher Greg Myers is on the DL with a strained left hamstring.

Hargrove dismissed any concerns about his bench leaning so heavily to the right side.

"If you don't have a lineup that can swing the bat, it's very important to have a balanced bench," he said. "But when you've got an offensive lineup like we've got, or the Indians have, in the grand scheme of things it's not that big of a deal."

Myers said he still can't gauge whether he'll be ready to return when his 15 days are up, but noted some improvement since aggravating a mild pull while hitting a home run in Saturday's exhibition game against the Cincinnati Reds.

"Just the fact I can walk normal is a big plus for me," he said. "Every day it's getting a little better."

Anderson allays fears

Once viewed as an uncertainty for Opening Day because of a nerve irritation in his left leg, Brady Anderson continues to ease concerns with his movement and ability to break on the ball in center field.

Hargrove watched Anderson run down a ball in left-center field on Monday, hitting the fence after making the catch. And he didn't seem to labor while covering ground last night.

"I don't want to say we saw anything different," Hargrove said, "but I think we saw Brady being closer to being healthy than we've seen in a while. There's a little more adrenalin flowing on Opening Day than in spring training."

Finally, Finley an Indian

The Orioles took their swings against left-hander Chuck Finley, who had appeared on the verge of joining the Indians last season. General manager John Hart didn't pull off a deal with Anaheim, however, and Hargrove didn't receive the bona fide No. 1 starter he had coveted.

Asked how many times he thought he had landed Finley last season, Hargrove said, "I know at least once."

"He's real durable, a strike-thrower and a proven winner," Hargrove said. "Any time he's had any support, he's been successful. There aren't many things not to like about Chuck Finley."

Around the horn

Last night's attendance of 33,833 was the smallest regular-season crowd at Camden Yards since April 11, 1996, when 32,187 showed up for a game against the Indians. Despite allowing six earned runs in six innings, Ponson lowered his lifetime ERA against the Indians to 10.52.

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