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Injury Means Julio Is No Closer for O's

By Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page D01

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Feb. 22 -- Without one pitch being thrown -- or perhaps more importantly, one blown save administered -- the Baltimore Orioles' uncomfortable closer situation may have been solved.

Reliever Jorge Julio will not be allowed to throw off the mound for the next three weeks -- although he will be allowed to play catch -- after an MRI exam revealed swelling of the flexor muscle in his right forearm. The injury seemingly puts Julio behind schedule in the competition with B.J. Ryan for the closer's role.

Jorge Julio had a career-high 4.57 ERA last season along with a career-low 22 saves. (Chris Gardner -- AP)

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"This will set him back, but there still is a fair chance at this point he'll be ready for Opening Day," said Jim Beattie, the Orioles' executive vice president of baseball operations. "I think it hurts his chances to start the season in a closer role."

The injury is the Orioles' latest point of frustration with Julio, who last season lost his closer's role to Ryan in the final month of the season. The Orioles, dismayed by Julio's inconsistency last season, had hoped to visit with him in Baltimore during the offseason to check on his health and to monitor bullpen sessions. But visa problems kept the 25-year-old Julio in Venezuela.

"That was one of the reasons we were so frustrated," Beattie said. "We wanted to get him here."

During winter league play, Julio -- who had thrown 14 innings -- began to feel pain in the forearm. Strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop examined Julio's forearm during a visit to Venezuela and found no serious injury. Trainer Richie Bancells said Julio experienced the same type of forearm problem last year, though Julio believes it was something different.

"I had treatment and then it went away," Julio said.

The MRI also revealed some ligament damage, though it was consistent with wear.

"It's old damage," Bancells said. "That stuff there, it's nothing new and acute. With short relievers, there's a lot of guys who pitch like that."

Because a closer is required to throw only 15 to 20 pitches per game, Julio could still be in shape to start the year in the bullpen. He will begin to throw on flat ground from 60 feet then increase to 90 feet.

Manager Lee Mazzilli said Julio could still start the season as the closer; that role may be determined by who fills the other bullpen jobs. Steve Kline, Steve Reed and Jay Witasick were all signed to provide depth. Mazzilli would feel more comfortable making Ryan his closer if Kline can step in and fill Ryan's role of a left-handed specialist.

"In both cases, we kind of know what each guy can do," Mazzilli said. "My thing in spring training is looking at who will take us to the end of the game."

"I don't care what job I have," Julio said. "The most important thing is having a healthy arm. I'll approach any job as if I was the closer."

The winter has been harsh for Julio, who also was constantly mentioned as a candidate to be traded during hot-stove discussions. Several sources said they believed Julio would not start the season in Baltimore, though perhaps the injury may scare teams away now.

"I've always said that nobody really understands baseball," Julio said. "In baseball, your work will determine what happens. It doesn't matter what team you're on, you have to do your job. There are 30 teams out there and they are always watching. In reality, I never thought it was serious. There were always rumors last year, but I'm here. I can do the job. Wherever that is."

Julio's 4.57 ERA last season was the highest of his four-year major league career, and his 22 saves were his fewest since becoming a closer in 2002.

"Last year it was very difficult," Julio said. "I never had so much time without pitching. That affected me a lot. I'm a person who likes to pitch a lot. When I pitch a lot, I'm consistent."

Three times last year, Julio went nine or more games without a save opportunity. In one span in August, Julio waited 19 days between opportunities.

Julio may have an even longer wait this year.

"I don't think we need to sit here today and make that decision," Beattie said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company