Ripken puts up numbers, shuts up critics


June 21, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

Kansas City, Mo. -- The talk-show types have fallen silent, or at least they have turned their attention to more pressing concerns. Cal Ripken doesn't need a day off anymore, not that he ever took one.

What he needs is a little more help from the rest of the Baltimore Orioles lineup, which has depended too heavily on his offensive renaissance and has paid a heavy price in the standings.

The club may have to settle for Ripken's rebirth at the plate, where only a few short months ago his skills were perceived to be in a state of decline. He is leading the American League with a .345 batting average and ranks among the league leaders in every relevant category.

Perhaps this should not come as a great surprise, since Ripken is one of the most productive hitters ever to play regularly at shortstop, but his offense had come into question the past couple of years. Now, he has to dodge questions about his success, a subject he does not like to talk about for reasons that border on the superstitious.

He has deflected some of the more analytical queries on the grounds that he does not want to "jinx" himself, as if this were some kind of Vegas roll that depends on the luck of the draw. It is not, of course. It is all very logical.

"I just see Cal using the whole field, using the bunt once in awhile, hitting the ball to the right side," manager John Oates said, "and when he doesn't hit the ball well, they are falling in for him."

OK, so there is a small element of luck involved, but there is nothing random about Ripken's success. It's just that he has put himself in a position to get some of the breaks that he didn't get last year, when he was pulling everything to the left side.

"Look at Cal and look at a hitter like Ernie Whitt," Oates said. "This is nothing against Ernie [who hits nearly everything to the right side], but when he goes up there, he has to be lucky, because there are going to be five guys where he hits the ball. It just stands to reason that if you use the whole field, they are going to have more ground to cover.

"But I'm not saying that Cal has been hitting a lot of balls softly. He had a short period where some were falling in for him, but the past few weeks, everything has been a pea."

BTC Ripken has new stance and a new philosophy at the plate. He came into the season determined to share the offensive load with newcomers Glenn Davis and Dwight Evans. Though both of them are on the disabled list, Ripken has allowed the weight of the team to slip off his shoulders, which -- ironically -- has allowed him to carry more than his share.

"His setup is different," hitting coach Tom McCraw said. "It allows him to handle a lot more pitches and allows him to hit the ball the other way with authority. Show me a .300 hitter and I'll show you a guy who hits to all fields. I don't know if he's going to hit .350 all year, but with his knowledge and the way he's setting himself up, he's going to be consistent."

To the trained eye, the difference in hitting mechanics is obvious. The rest of us will just have to be satisfied with looking at the results and listening to the experts.

"He used four or five different stances last year," Oates said. "He started out in spring training this year with one stance and there has been no reason to change it."

Ripken batted .380 in spring training. He has sustained his current level of offensive production for nearly 90 games, a pretty good indication that this is more than just a temporary turn of fortune.

Minnesota Twins manager Tom Kelly is a believer. He threw away the book and ordered an intentional walk to Ripken in the ninth inning Monday night, even though Ripken represented the go-ahead run. It was a break with conventional wisdom that didn't pay off, but it was an indication of just how well Ripken was swinging the bat at the time.

"I would have done the same thing," Oates said. "I don't think his .360 average was the only reason. There are other things that go into a decision like that. But it probably was the major factor in that decision."

Ripken went hitless in the final two games of the Minnesota series and last night in Kansas City, but his .345 average is the highest ever by an Oriole this late in the season.

He also leads the league in hits (87), multiple-hit games (31) and total bases (148). The same guy who was criticized for his stubborn resistance to any kind of outside help last year apparently found a way to help himself during the off-season.

He spent the winter experimenting with a new approach, even though his 1990 season (21 home runs, 84 RBI) was good enough to justify an "if it's not broke, don't fix it" philosophy.

"I was not at the point where I wanted to totally change everything," Ripken said. "You still want to hit the way you hit. To me, it was just a matter of consistency. I wanted to be more consistent than I was the last two years.

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