FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Mike Timlin turns 41 today. His birthday will take place as scheduled.
Everything else is on hold, however, including whether he'll be ready to start the season when the Red Sox open in Kansas City against the Royals April 2.
Timlin was to have made his first appearance in an exhibition game this afternoon in Lakeland, where he was slated to pitch an inning against the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers. But yesterday morning in Clearwater, where the Sox later edged the Phillies, 11-10, manager Terry Francona announced that Timlin is still experiencing discomfort in his side and would not be allowed to throw for at least another week.
Timlin has a strained oblique muscle, and he felt enough discomfort after a 40-pitch batting practice session Wednesday he underwent an MRI the next day. The Sox then elected to shut him down, which calls into question whether Timlin will have enough time to be ready for the opener. At this juncture, it would appear highly doubtful, raising the possibility that the team's most durable reliever may begin the season on the disabled list and remain in Florida in extended spring training.
"We'll just have to see how quickly Mike responds to treatment," general manager Theo Epstein said yesterday in an e-mail. "It's too early to tell right now."
Assuming the best-case scenario, there will be just over two weeks before the start of the season if Timlin is allowed to resume throwing next week. He would no doubt have to follow the normal progression -- catch, long toss, bullpen, batting practice -- before appearing in a game, which means there would only be just over a week left in camp for that to happen. It's almost inconceivable the Sox would then deem him ready for the regular season.
And the reality is, strained oblique muscles can be difficult in terms of gauging severity, and the necessary recovery time. Sox outfielder Trot Nixon strained an oblique muscle in 2005 and missed a month. Sox shortstop Alex Gonzalez strained an oblique last September, missed 15 games, then hit just .149 after being activated, the injury clearly a hindrance.
Thursday, oft-injured Braves pitcher Mike Hampton strained an oblique muscle in batting practice; the club said he'll be out two months -- four weeks to recover from the injury, another four to build up arm strength.
Privately, the Sox concede they're not sure of the severity of Timlin's strain. Timlin was injured Feb. 25, about 10 pitches into a live batting practice session, his first of camp. He clutched his side, then walked off the field. At the time, he thought it might be just a cramp or a spasm. He joked about his age.
"Old guy starting to fall apart now," he said.
But for the Sox, already beset with questions about their bullpen, questions about Timlin's health don't come with a laugh track. Last season, Timlin came down with a strained shoulder that led to his disablement from May 28 to June 13. Francona is convinced that Timlin's injury relates to his participation in last spring's World Baseball Classic. Timlin said that's possible, but he's unsure.
What's indisputable is this: Before the injury, Timlin had a 3-0 record in 22 appearances, with a 1.40 ERA, a rate of 5.6 strikeouts per nine innings, and allowed just one home run in 19 1/3 innings. Afterward, his record was 3-6 in 46 appearances, with a 5.77 ERA, 3.7 strikeouts per nine innings, and a yield of six home runs in 43 2/3 innings.
Timlin has carried an immense workload, more so in the latter stages of his career. Since the start of the 2003 season, he has made 297 appearances, a total eclipsed by just three pitchers, and even with his stint on the DL in '06, he led the staff with 68 appearances.
The Sox were sufficiently convinced he could give them another year that they gave him a one-year, $2.8 million contract, with incentives that could make the deal worth $3.3 million if he attained 70 appearances. But this is an ominous development for a team that has yet to settle on a closer. Timlin in recent days had been mentioned as possibly the leading candidate to open the year as the closer, although that speculation appeared premature.
Joel Pineiro, signed after being nontendered by Seattle, was the pitcher the Sox hoped would claim the closer's role, but he has been inconsistent as he tries to become more comfortable with the lower arm slot he adopted at the end of last season. The other purported candidates, like Timlin, all seem better suited for setup roles: Julian Tavarez, Brendan Donnelly, and Devern Hansack.
Jonathan Papelbon? On Thursday, Francona was blunt in trying to shoot down speculation the club would abandon plans to make Papelbon a starter. He finished last season with a tired rotator cuff -- the band of muscles that support the shoulder joint, which is why the ball of the shoulder slipped out of joint. The club was relieved to find no evidence of tears in the cuff or the labrum, the lip of cartilage at the rim of the joint where a biceps tendon is attached. But the Sox medical people have advised the team that Papelbon's risk of injury is less if he starts and follows a prescribed schedule of rest between starts.
Epstein shopped for a closer during the offseason, making offers to Eric Gagne and Octavio Dotel, but came up empty. It's conceivable he will look outside again for a closer this spring, but the Sox have not talked since December to Nationals GM Jim Bowden about Chad Cordero, Bowden having set the price extremely high (top prospects) for his closer.