SARASOTA, FLA. — It is beginning to look like the Orioles are going to need every minute of this year's extra-long spring training to put a healthy team on the field for Opening Day.
Shortstop J.J. Hardy will be lost until at least early March with persistent back spasms, making him the second front-line player to be sidelined during the first week of workouts at the Ed Smith Stadium complex.
Neither Hardy nor pitching ace Chris Tillman was injured on the field and both might have sufficient time to recover without missing significant time during the regular season. But this obviously is not the way any team wants to open spring training.
Hardy said he first tweaked his back right before Orioles FanFest three weeks ago and was confident he could work through the injury because he has dealt successfully with back spasms in the past. But he was still sore when he arrived in Florida, so the club sent him for an MRI on Thursday and scheduled two more tests while the rest of the team went through its first full-squad workout Friday.
"I've been having back spasms for a couple weeks now, so we're running a bunch of tests just to make sure we can rule everything out," Hardy said. "... When we get all those tests back, we'll know what's going on.
"It feels similar to everything I've had in the past and it's just kind of just spasms, and they go away and I'm normal until I take time off and start swinging again the next spring. That's about all I know."
Manager Buck Showalter said the preliminary results of the MRI and a CT scan were encouraging. The team was still waiting late Friday for the results of a bone scan to ascertain whether the discomfort is the result of any structural damage to his vertebrae.
If that also shows nothing unusual, Hardy could be ready to resume workouts in early March and enter the team's exhibition lineup about 10 days after that.
"We've got an idea what we're dealing with and it's nothing that we haven't managed in the past," Showalter said. "He wouldn't have played before March 5 anyway. I told [head trainer Richie Bancells], 'If everything checked out well, when can I expect him to be on the field playing?' And it's not that long after that, so nothing's in jeopardy."
Hardy's playing schedule already had been cut back for a couple of reasons. Spring training has been stretched to more than seven weeks this year to accommodate the World Baseball Classic, so Showalter has said all along he will tread lightly with his veteran players during the early exhibition games.
Also, Manny Machado has been projected as the starting shortstop for the Dominican Republic team, so Showalter gave him the option of playing as much shortstop as possible before leaving for the WBC.
Hardy has grappled with a variety of injuries over the course of his Orioles career and spent time on the disabled list last year with a fractured bone in his left foot. But the team can take some comfort in the fact that he experienced nagging back problems throughout the 2014 season and did not spend a day on the DL.
"Compared to 2014, I think, it happened the first week of the season, it started spasming, and then I was able to stay off the DL," Hardy said, "but I came back way too soon, and it lingered kind of the whole year. So it's nice it happened now and we can kind of get ahead of it before the season actually starts, so that's a good thing."
Though there should be enough time for Hardy to get ready for Opening Day if all goes well, the three-week window between his projected first exhibition game and the start of the regular season doesn't leave much room for a setback.
"I'm not going to say I'm not that concerned, but when we get this other test back, I'll have a pretty good feel for what we're looking at," Showalter said. "I don't want to jinx us by getting ahead, but so far so good. It's just something we want to take care of and not slow-play and then a week from now we start doing these tests. Let's just get it done now so we know what we're dealing with."
Baltimore Sun reporter Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this article.