MILWAUKEE -- After one-half inning last night, Orioles manager Johnny Oates would've settled for the assurance that Cal Ripken would be able to stay in the game.
Forget the two home runs and four runs batted in that led the Orioles to a 7-1 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Pay no mind to the 11-game hit streak (23-for-47, .489). Or the sizzling .366 streak during the past 31 games that has raised the All-Star shortstop's average to a season-high .292.
Oates figures if Ripken is in the lineup, the appropriate numbers will come, just like the moon following the sun. Nobody wonders what it would be like without Ripken in the lineup because it's been more than a decade since he missed a game.
But last night, right after he made the last out in the top of the first inning and just before the commercial break, Ripken gave Oates the scare of his short managerial career.
He had just bounced out to third baseman Kevin Seitzer, a high chopper that came within a half-step of being an infield hit. Rarely has a half-step seemed so huge.
As he is prone to do in such situations, Ripken took one long stride trying to beat the throw. His foot came down on the front of the bag and there was an immediate reaction.
Few people know Ripken's pain threshold because they have never heard him admit to pain. However, there was at least some obvious discomfort as Ripken took his position between innings.
In the dugout, Oates was in a mental frenzy. "I turned to Richie [Bancells, the team trainer], and said, 'He's hurt,' " Oates recalled his initial reaction.
"I started thinking, 'What kind of a lineup am I going to have without him [Ripken] and [Chris] Hoiles? Who's the shortstop -- [Juan] Bell, [Manny] Alexander, [Ricky] Gutierrez? Who's going to be my No. 3 hitter? What about the bottom of the lineup?
" 'The streak -- if he's here I'm going to play him . . . he'll have to tell me he can't play. Is it an ankle, hamstring, Achilles -- Lord, that could be career-threatening.' You can't imagine all of the things that went through my mind in about 30 seconds."
Between innings, Ripken fielded grounders thrown by first baseman Randy Milligan while in a crouch, much like a catcher warming up a pitcher.
"Something was barking a little bit," said hitting coach Greg Biagini, who detected some initial gimpiness from the guy who has played 1,642 consecutive games. A routine play that went unnoticed by just about everybody in the stands wasn't missed by anybody in an Orioles uniform.
"Naw, I didn't hold my breath," said Bill Ripken, Cal's brother. "If that's all it was, I knew he'd play through it."
Even in the bullpen, the play was noticed. "I told the guys out there, 'He hurt his leg,' " said Storm Davis, who later would register his second save of the year. Davis was around the only other time anybody can remember Ripken's streak being jeopardized -- when he sprained his left ankle in 1984, but aided by a scheduled off-day was back in the lineup for the next game.
When the Orioles came off the field at the end of the first inning, Oates dispatched Bancells to get the scoop. "I asked him if he was OK and he said 'yep,' " said Bancells.
What had caused the concern? "I don't know, I didn't ask him, I've been around him too long," said Bancells, who came through the minor leagues with Ripken.
For the record, it was not the left ankle that Ripken irritated, but the heel of the foot.
"I was trying to run as fast as I could and I couldn't seem to get everything in gear," he said. "I lunged and hit the bag with my heel."
Ripken added that his between-innings ritual had nothing to do with discomfort. "It wasn't that as much as being mad for not being able to run any faster," he said. "It just jarred my heel a little."
It did more than that to the manager. "It jarred my heart," said Oates. "Richie can tell you how nervous I was."
Bancells needed no prodding to substantiate Oates' story. "Very nervous," said Bancells.
From that point on, it was just like any other recent day for Ripken. He had his sixth straight multi-hit game and his first two-homer game of the season to continue one of the hottest streaks of his career.
"Doesn't that guy ever take a day off?" asked Milwaukee's first-year manager, Phil Garner. Little does Garner know that last night might be as close as he'll be coming to seeing such an event.
By the time the evening was over, Ripken had passed Brooks Robinson and moved into third place on the Orioles' all-time home run list with 269. Boog Powell is next on the list with 303 and Eddie Murray is at the top with 333. Ripken should easily pass both -- provided, of course, he continues to swing in an Orioles uniform, but that's another story.
Ripken's explanation for his blistering pace of the past month is as basic as it gets. "I'm swinging the bat pretty good right now," he admitted. Like most hitters, he doesn't like to dwell on what he's doing right when things are going good -- or on what might be wrong when things are bad.
They call it keeping an even keel, but last night Oates was happy just to keep his mental process in normal working order. He even got a bonus when Jose Mesa (3-7) went five strong innings to get only his fifth win in his last 27 starts, dating back to last year.
It wasn't spectacular, but it was progress. And the Orioles even managed to beat Jamie Navarro (7-6) for the first time ever. He had a 6-0 lifetime record against them before last night.
The win also at least temporarily cooled off the Brewers. They had won seven of their last nine games to creep within 2 1/2 games of the second-place Orioles, who trail first-place Toronto by a half-game after the Blue Jays' rainout last night in Texas.
But those are all just incidental facts for Oates, who went to bed thankful he didn't have to wrestle with any of the possibilities that danced through his mind during the first inning last night.