DETROIT -- Cal Ripken ushered the Detroit Tigers out of the American League East Division pennant race yesterday.
The Baltimore Orioles' shortstop showed the Tigers the also-ran door with another devastating offensive show -- two home runs, four hits, four RBI -- in a 7-4 victory that moved the Orioles into a fifth-place tie with New York.
This is the first time since April 24, when they had a 5-8 record, that the Orioles have been this high in the division.
And manager John Oates was almost speechless after the latest effort by Ripken, who is 8-for-14 with five extra-base hits and 11 RBI in the four-game series that ends tonight.
"I know you guys [media] want me to say something prophetic," said Oates. "But there is nothing else I can come up with about Junior."
Ripken couldn't shed much light on his late-season drive, which has pushed him beyond 200 hits (203) for the second time, to a career-high 114 RBI and into long-shot contention for the league batting title (.329).
"I don't have any sure-fire secrets," he said. "You're constantly re- arranging goals. After the All-Star break, you want to have a good second half, then you want to finish strong the final month.
"Right now, the real motivation is that you want to play tough against clubs in your own division who have had a good year."
Funny, but no one is talking about how Ripken needs a late-season rest this year.
"You come to accept that talk," he said after starting his 1,566th straight game. "I never thought it would be a problem explaining why the last few years haven't been big finishes.
"There are any number of reasons, but not because you're tired. After a while, you just deal with the talk and go on."
The Orioles' start in this game was not promising. Jose Mesa could not find the plate in the first inning, allowed two runs and was fortunate there weren't more, as the Tigers left the bases loaded.
"I was all over the place," said Mesa, who lasted six innings, allowing three runs and nine hits, with two walks and five strikeouts. "Nothing was going over for a strike. Then, things kind of reversed after the first inning. I threw a lot of strikes."
Oates had Anthony Telford throwing in the bullpen, but "was tickled to death he pitched out of that. Jose wound up throwing a lot of pitches, but it was perfect timing for his last start the way he turned around."
Once Mesa righted himself to permit only three baserunners in the next five innings, Ripken started blasting Detroit rookie Scott Aldred, the victim of both his 33rd and 34th homers, increasing his career high.
"I made critical errors to him," said Aldred, who had a 1.21 ERA in his previous three starts. "Down the road I can see myself doing things differently against him, making sure I'm not giving him a pitch that can beat me."
Ripken put the Orioles ahead, 3-2, with a three-run homer to the upper deck in left field in the third after singles by Jeff Tackett (his first big-league hit) and Luis Mercedes (breaking an 0-for-18 streak).
He followed with a searing line drive into the lower deck just to the right of the foul pole in left in the sixth, and the Orioles were on their way.
Todd Frohwirth rescued Mesa in the seventh in a bases-loaded, none-out jam. Only one run scored-- that on a routine grounder to first by Cecil Fielder that lifted his league-leading RBI total to 129.
Frohwirth yielded an unearned run in the eighth when a passed ball by Tackett on a walk allowed a runner to score from third.
But by then, the Orioles had scored all their runs with Ripken contributing a single in the middle of a two-run seventh that featured a bases-loaded walk to Dwight Evans and a run-scoring wild pitch.
Nine of Ripken's past 12 hits have driven in runs, and yesterday was the 10th two-homer game of his career. It was another big show.
"Some days at this point, you have to dig down deep and say to yourself 'let's go,' " said Ripken. "It's a whole different game if you're not in the race."
Oates knows it isn't easy. "It's something very special to keep going from the first of April," he said. "The mental part is the tough part. To me, Cal approaches the game as a kid would, as if it's a Little League game. He comes in, jokes in the clubhouse, and then he's on the field goofing around with [brother] Billy while he does his work.
"That's the only answer I can think of."
Tigers first: Phillips singled to center. Whitaker walked, Phillips to second. Incaviglia singled to left-center, Phillips scored, Whitaker to second. Fielder struck out. Tettleton grounded into fielder's choice, second baseman B.Ripken to shortstop C.Ripken, Whitaker to third, Incaviglia forced at second. Bergman singled to left, Whitaker scored, Tettleton to second. Fryman walked, Tettleton to third, Bergman to second. Barnes struck out. 2 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 3 left on. Tigers 2, Orioles 0.