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CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Oblique injury is in, so 'beware of the sneeze'

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J.J. Hardy has played major league baseball for seven years now and has heeded plenty of warnings during that time. From advance scouting reports cautioning of the intricacies of Mariano Rivera's cutter to clubhouse signs detailing the current testing for performance-enhancing drugs, the game is a minefield of danger, both foreseen and unforeseen.

But here was a warning he had never really considered before.

Corey Hart has yet to play a game this season due to an oblique strain. (Getty Images)  
Corey Hart has yet to play a game this season due to an oblique strain. (Getty Images)  
"Beware of the sneeze. It makes you want to cry."

Earlier that Saturday, Hardy had suffered the misfortune of joining an inordinately large number of players sidelined by this season's injury du jour: The oblique strain.

The text that buzzed into his cell phone just a few hours later was from good friend and former Milwaukee teammate Corey Hart, who literally could feel Hardy's pain. Hart, too, was knocked silly with an oblique strain earlier this spring. He's yet to play in 2011.

"It felt like an ice pick going into my side, stabbing," says Hardy, currently rehabbing at the Orioles' extended spring training base in Sarasota, Fla., of the April 9 swing against Texas pitcher Matt Harrison that did him in.

Just as fashion changes each spring and hipsters move from acid-washed jeans to skinny jeans to whatever the next craze is, each baseball season brings its own unique material. From hamstring strains to ankle sprains, injuries, like grapes, often seem to come in bunches.

This season, for reasons nobody can fully explain, the oblique has moved front-and-center. Roughly a dozen players already have been sidelined when betrayed by one of the four broad, flat muscles that run diagonally, attaching the rib cage with the hip on each side of the body.

Muscles that, like the MP3 player, Netflix and Taylor Swift, weren't around in the 1960s and 1970s.

"Not that I know of," Reds manager and former outfielder Dusty Baker, groans. "Don't ask me, man."

Well, truth be told, obliques have always existed.

Otherwise, as Reds trainer Paul Lessard points out, "people wouldn't have been able to stay erect."

It's just that, before advancements in medicine allowed for specificity, they were lumped under the large umbrella of "side strain" or "strained rib cage."

By whatever name, oblique strains make managers cringe more than second-guessing radio talk show screamers.

"It's not a good one," Padres manager Bud Black says. "You don't like those. They're like a hamstring strain. They linger. Even though you might get back on the field, you feel it.

"Those don't heal until the offseason."

Notable oblique injuries in 2011
Baltimore J.J. Hardy
Brian Matusz (intercostal muscle)
Boston Matt Albers
Cleveland Joe Smith
Los Angeles Angels Erick Aybar
New York Yankees Alex Rodriguez
Tampa Bay Evan Longoria
Atlanta Jair Jurrjens
Houston J.A. Happ
Los Angeles Dodgers Jon Garland
Dioner Navarro
Milwaukee Corey Hart
New York Mets Jason Bay
San Francisco Brian Wilson

At 6-1, the Orioles were off to their best start since 1997 when Hardy was injured two Saturdays ago. After massively overhauling their infield over the winter by installing Hardy, Derrek Lee and Mark Reynolds, the Orioles hadn't won a game since through Tuesday.

Struggling Milwaukee sorely has missed Hart in the middle of its lineup. Tampa Bay has had to survive without All-Star Evan Longoria, who strained an oblique in the Rays' second game. Atlanta's Jair Jurrjens and the Dodgers' Jon Garland each rejoined his club's rotation within the past few days after spring oblique injuries.

In New York, the Yankees removed Alex Rodriguez from Saturday's game with oblique "stiffness", then kept him on the bench Sunday and out of Tuesday's lineup.

Usually, a true oblique strain is a guaranteed two-week absence, often a month and sometimes up to six or more weeks.

The old days, before "oblique" bleakly entered the lexicon? Without the benefit of today's multi-year contracts and millions of guaranteed dollars, players playing for next year's deal often played through them. Or simply took pain-killing shots.

Essentially, the oblique is an abdominal muscle and, as Lessard says, the injury is usually associated with a "ballistic" movement: A pitcher rotating his midsection and firing forward with force while delivering a pitch, a batter exploding out of his stance attempting to hit a pitch.

With today's emphasis on "core" strength, though, you would think that the number of these injuries would be lessening, not multiplying.

"The bodies look good," Baker says. "But the bodies are breaking down."

"There are a lot of variables," says Lessard, in his 14th season as a head trainer. "Is it from a cold, rainy day? Is it a guy's 800th swing of the day and he's fatigued? What kind of warm-up did a guy do before pitching or hitting?

"Question is, besides baseball activity in the offseason, how much flexibility is being done? That's the forgotten tool."

When infielder Orlando Hudson was felled by an oblique strain last July while playing with the Twins, Hardy -- his then-teammate -- recalls that it was 90-something degrees in Baltimore that day, "the hottest series I ever played in. And the air conditioning in the locker room was set at something like 60 degrees."

Change in temperature? Or just bad luck?

Whatever, Hudson felt that ice-pick sensation.

"You can't cough," Hudson says. "You can't sneeze. You can't move your stomach or it bites you.

"I don't even want to talk about it."

Recovery involves ice, laser treatment ... and lots of rest.

"Everyone I've talked to who has had it is telling me, 'Don't try and come back too soon or it will cost you another couple of weeks,' " Hardy says.

More advice from the Orioles' medical staff has been "not to try and find it."

In other words, as he heals, Hardy might reach a point where he feels no pain in his oblique, "but don't go moving around and trying to feel it."

Initially told he would be sidelined four-to-six weeks, Hardy hopes he can return before the four-week mark.

But for him and others, as with most things oblique, who knows?

"I've had a few tickles in my nose, then pinched my nose real quick to try and stop the sneeze," he says. "But the other day, I sneezed and didn't feel anything."

Feeling like he's on his way back, Hardy pauses, then continues.

"Thank God it hasn't been allergy season."

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