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Berken expects to be ready for Spring Training

Berken expects to be ready for Spring Training

BALTIMORE -- While the Orioles continue to replenish their depleted bullpen -- officially signing Jeremy Accardo on Friday, with hopes of adding one or two more arms -- there's growing optimism that they will be further bolstered this spring by reliever Jason Berken, who expects to be healthy in time for camp.

"It's like night and day," Berken said of his right shoulder, which he has been rehabbing up to three hours a day, three times a week for about a month. "Physically, I feel incredible.

"I'm on track to where I know I'm going to start throwing a good month of long toss [and] be ready to go for Spring Training."

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Tuesday's evaluation with head athletic trainer Richie Bancells and assistant athletic trainer Brian Ebel gave Berken good reason for self-assurance, as the pair came away impressed with his progress and "100 percent supportive" of Berken starting his regular offseason throwing program in the beginning of January.

"[They said], 'There's no reason why you shouldn't be able to throw on time,'" Berken said in a phone interview on Friday. "It's huge, because when I went through my Tommy John surgery [in 2004], I had the same mindset I did now -- that I'm going to come back stronger than before and not let any negative thoughts creep in my head. I said, 'I'm really going to get after my rehab.'

"Having that green light, having that vote of confidence [from the Orioles' trainers] is awesome."

Arguably the team's best reliever in the first half of last season, Berken's performance waned after the All-Star break and he was shut down for good in mid-August with right shoulder inflammation. A follow-up MRI revealed a slight tear in his labrum and rotator cuff inflammation, and while the prognosis fortunately didn't involve surgery, the rehabilitation required is a long and tedious process. It's also one that Berken, who has been running, lifting and doing core work as well, doesn't take lightly.

"Coming into this year, physically, based on my shoulder and everything else, I'll be a step ahead of where I've been in the past," he said. "This offseason has really given me a lot of time to put things in perspective.

"Never having a shoulder issue my whole career, there's a lot more things that I can do and will do to prevent this from happening in the future. ... There's no question when you have an injury or something like this, it just makes you that much more aware."

A converted starter, Berken made his first Opening Day roster out of the bullpen in 2010 and was a pleasant surprise, despite the team's first-half struggles. He allowed just eight earned runs in his first 27 outings -- a stretch of 45 innings -- and credits both experience and the confidence that comes with it for his success.

"I don't know if it was the bullpen switch, but I was able to kind of put things together and figure out what I had to do to be successful," Berken said, "whereas [during my] first year [in the big leagues in 2009], you are trying to figure it out, and all of a sudden you are 1-10 [and] your confidence starts to dwindle. Last year, I was able to build on that confidence instead."

Assuming Berken stays on track, he will enter Spring Training with a right shoulder stronger than at any point during the last two seasons, and while manager Buck Showalter hasn't ruled out looking at some of the team's relievers as possible starters, Berken said he's happy either way.

"I haven't heard anything [in regards to switching roles]," Berken said. "I would love the [opportunity] to start again if I got it, but either way, I'm just looking forward to being healthy, looking forward to pitching. I want to a part of this turnaround at this place. I think it's an exciting time to be an Oriole."

On the more immediate horizon for Berken is the fourth annual "Berken Baseball Camp," where the De Pere, Wis., native will be joined by teammate Brian Matusz, several Minor League players and some of his former Clemson University teammates in helping give back to his hometown. The clinic, open to children in grades 3-12, will be held Jan. 15 and 16 at Berken's high school, West De Pere, and will feature eight hours of professional instruction, batting-cage practice, a camp T-shirt, a meal each day and a chance to win baseball memorabilia.

Berken said he hopes to expand the camp to include a scholarship in the future and also has plans to eventually make the event, which donates raffle proceeds to charities around the area, entirely nonprofit.

"I just want to give back as much as I can to my high school and the town I grew up, and just kind of give the kids something to look up to," said Berken, who will also take part in a fundraiser for the nonprofit Junior Achievement program in January. "When I was a kid, if I had that opportunity, I would have just died. So I love going home and doing that kind of stuff."

For information or to sign up for the camp, go to www.berkenbaseball.com or call (410) 707-9825.

Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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