The Orioles emerged from spring training relatively healthy, but it took just three games into the regular season for their first injury scare to crop up.
Center fielder Adam Jones was out of the starting lineup for Thursday night's 4-2 series finale victory over the Minnesota Twins with soreness in his rib area, manager Buck Showalter said. Showalter indicated that sitting Jones was more of a precautionary move and added that his All-Star center fielder wanted to play Thursday.
Showalter instead gave rookie Rule 5 pick Joey Rickard his first start in center field in Jones' place. Rickard, who also batted leadoff for the first time on Thursday, hit his first major league homer in the bottom of the eighth inning.
"[Jones] said he's fine and probably is not too happy with the old manager right now," Showalter said. "I just thought it would be smart to give him a day."
After Thursday's game Showalter was optimistic Jones would be back in the starting lineup.
"Right now we're in pretty good shape but we'll see what tomorrow brings," Showalter said.
Jones was in obvious discomfort after striking out during his final at-bat of Wednesday night's win over the Twins. After swinging through a 95-mph fastball from reliever Ryan Pressly, Jones hunched over and appeared to be in pain at home plate.
"The only time it was a challenge for him was the last at-bat," Showalter said. "I was asking if it was hurting him before, if it was something that was nagging him. I know it wasn't batting practice because there were no torque issues there. … I hope he's back in the lineup tomorrow."
No X-ray or MRI tests are planned for Jones, Showalter said following Thursday's game, and he didn't want to speculate that the injury could be related to an oblique strain, which would be the Orioles' greatest fear because it could shelve Jones for several weeks.
Oblique injuries are a bugaboo for hitters and often only go away with extended rest.
"We're not going to mention the 'O-B-L' word, but that injury wasn't around years ago," Showalter said. "But you think about all the swings these guys take nowadays, so you wonder sometimes. ... It's like you remember guys used to miss games with sore arms, infielders or outfielders. They don't ever do that anymore because they figured out that taking infield [and] outfield every day was not a good idea. … You're going to pay the price for it.
"It's just sometimes repetition, wear and tear. I'm hoping it's a one-day thing and we're there tomorrow. But we're not going to take a chance on it on April 7."
Jones prides himself on being in the lineup every game, and he's often played through injuries in the past. He hasn't been on the disabled list since the final month of the 2009 season, when he missed 29 games with a left ankle sprain.
He dealt with myriad ailments last season as shoulder, back, wrist and ankle injuries limited him to 137 games, his fewest since he played in 119 in 2009.
Before last season, Jones built a reputation of being one of the most durable players in the game. He played in at least 149 games for five straight seasons and he averaged 160 games from 2012 to 2014. Jones played in 322 consecutive games from Sept. 26, 2011, to Sept. 24, 2013.
Jones wasn't in the Orioles clubhouse during the allotted pregame media session or after Thursday's game.
Jones had hits in each of the Orioles' first two games — including a two-run double Opening Day — but he is just 2-for-10 with four strikeouts.
But as his veteran core players reach their 30s — a group that includes Jones, shortstop J.J. Hardy, first baseman Chris Davis and catcher Matt Wieters — Showalter has often said he is focused on giving them more days off to keep them fresh down the stretch.
Jones missing any significant amount of time would test the Orioles' depth. One of the reasons Rickard earned a roster spot this season was his ability to play all three outfield positions, but most importantly serve as a capable backup to Jones in center field.
When Jones missed 12 of the final 13 games of last season with recurring back stiffness, the Orioles used four players in center field — Gerardo Parra, Nolan Reimold, David Lough and Junior Lake — and those four hit a combined .219 (9-for-41).
Rickard, who started the first two games of the season in left before replacing Jones in center on Thursday, is 5-for-11 in his first three major league games. Rickard and Reimold are the only players on the 25-man roster other than Jones to make a major league start in center field.
Rickard was atop the batting order several times during spring training and Showalter considered batting him leadoff Opening Day, but decided he wanted Rickard to work his way up the order and batted Manny Machado leadoff.
Ideally, Showalter wanted to wait longer than Rickard's third major league game to place him in the leadoff spot, but said Jones' absence offered the opportunity.
"The thing with Joey is that we all know he can potentially bring that skill set you're looking for there," Showalter said. "You just don't want to put that spotlight on him right away, so you put him in the nine hole and then the timing is when is he ready for that and then if he goes there and doesn't do well, is that the reason? … When we've been good, we've had production out of [the No. 9] spot, but sometimes necessity lets you look at something you might not have done that night."
Rickard took advantage by launching Trevor May's 1-0 delivery into the Orioles bullpen in left-center field.