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Rijo takes first big step as comeback begins

The Associated Press

DAYTON – Jose Rijo took a solid first step in his latest comeback from elbow surgery, giving up one run in three innings Wednesday for a Cincinnati Reds’ Class A Dayton team.

Thursday, July 05, 2001

DAYTON – Jose Rijo took a solid first step in his latest comeback from elbow surgery, giving up one run in three innings Wednesday for a Cincinnati Reds’ Class A Dayton team.

Appearing his first professional game in five years, the 36-year-old pitcher gave up three hits, didn’t walk a batter and struck out the last of the 11 he faced in front of a capacity crowd.

Rijo, who was the MVP of the Reds’ 1990 World Series sweep of Oakland, has been trying off and on for years to make a comeback from four major elbow operations.

He was pleased with how it went.

”I think this first step is a big one,” Rijo said. ”I felt great today. My first two innings, I was a little nervous. In the third, I put a little more effort into it.”

His start against West Michigan drew a capacity crowd of 8,768. More fans stood outside the stadium along the fences, trying to get a glimpse of one of the Reds’ most popular players in the 1990s.

Rijo’s fastball was clocked as high as 90 mph. He threw 52 pitches, 34 of them for strikes.

”In the third inning, I felt like I had never had elbow surgery before. I wish I could have prolonged it,” he said. ”I never would have been happy if I didn’t come back and pitch like I did today.”

He hasn’t pitched in a big league game since July 18, 1995, when he gave up a single to San Diego’s Joey Hamilton to start the third inning. The pain in his elbow got so bad that he called out the trainer, then left the mound holding his right elbow as tears welled in his eyes.

Until elbow problems set in, Rijo was one of the toughest pitchers in the majors. He had a 95 mph fastball and a nasty slider that was one of the best in the big leagues.

Rijo won 15 games in 1991 and again in 1992, and led the NL in starts in 1993-94. A calcium formation on the elbow ligament prevented him from throwing the slider and led to reconstructive surgery in August 1995.

He was so eager to pitch again that he came back too soon, throwing full-strength fastballs and sliders in a spring training game in 1996. He wound up tearing up the elbow again and hasn’t played since.

Three more major elbow operations and a series of aborted comeback attempts followed. Rijo finally gave up – temporarily – when he signed a minor league deal and came to spring training in 1998, only to have the elbow act up again.

He spent the last three years building and running a baseball academy in his native Dominican Republic, but didn’t entirely give up on the comeback idea. He was throwing 90 mph this spring at the academy, inspiring one last try.

REITH GONE: Brian Reith was sent back to Double-A Chattanooga after getting hit hard again Wednesday.

Reith, one of four rookies in the Reds’ rotation, went 0-7 with a 7.81 ERA in eight starts and one relief appearance.

The Reds called up infielder Wilton Guerrero from Triple-A Louisville to take his spot.

First baseman Sean Casey, chosen Wednesday to represent the Cincinnati Reds at the All-Star game, was hit by a pitch in his first at-bat and had to leave the game with a bruised elbow.

Casey took a pitch from Pittsburgh’s Joe Beimel off his right arm in the second inning. He stayed in the game until the fourth, when he left to get X-rays that found no fracture.

Before the game, Casey was chosen for his second All-Star game. He also played in the 1999 game in Boston, grounding out in his only at-bat.

Casey is batting .330 and leads the Reds in doubles (21), homers (10) and RBIs (58).