O's split, but still worry Ripken, slumping and hurting, remains concern for club

'You fight through it'

Back, hip woes affect range at third base

September 17, 1997|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Clinching a playoff spot with two weeks left in the season allows the Orioles the luxury of introspection. Yesterday, they saw good and bad alike.

The Orioles split a second day-night doubleheader in as many days with the Cleveland Indians while ending a ridiculous stretch of five games in 49 hours. They also reopened questions about an ever-changing lineup -- including Cal Ripken -- in their 4-2 lunchtime loss before Jimmy Key (16-9) settled any concerns about the rotation with a 7-2 decision last night.

Key's first win at Camden Yards since May 7 also reduced the Orioles' magic number for clinching the AL East to seven. Though a division title remains a foregone conclusion, there is still room for apprehension with only nine wins in the past 23 games.

"I worry about a lot of things," manager Davey Johnson said. "I worry when we don't hit. I worry when we don't pitch. That's my job: to worry. We're in the playoffs. We should be getting our house in order."

When pressed, he added: "It ain't happening right now, but it's going to happen."

The worry extends to whether it can happen without an improved Ripken.

There are those who wonder about the club's productivity without its third baseman near full strength. Ripken's back and hip problems now translate into lesser range at third base and a two-week slump.

Ripken absorbed an 0-for-3 against Charles Nagy (15-10) in the afternoon loss and is hitting .087 (2-for-23) in his past eight games and .152 (10-for-66) in his past 19. Ripken has three home runs in his past 19 games, but, limited by his soreness, he now strains to drive an outside pitch and has struck out 15 times in his past 57 at-bats, an alarming ratio for someone who previously had averaged a strikeout every 9.79 at-bats.

"It's obvious. You know what scouts watching us are writing down on their reports," said one club source, referring more to Ripken's cut-down range.

Ripken said his back, which has sometimes spasmed under the grind of assuming a deeper crouch at third base, continues to flare. What had been an improving situation worsened during last Tuesday's game in Cleveland. "That was kind of a setback," he said of the game played during a steady rain and eventually called after eight innings. "There are some days that are better than others. On the bad days, you fight through it. It's something you deal with."

The condition, he said, affects his running most. Ripken contends his recent slump is "one of those things you go through in a season. The harder you try to get out of, sometimes the deeper it becomes." However, his more profound, more recent slide coincides with the wet night in Cleveland.

Ripken acknowledges his back problems "are going to be there until you can take a month or so off to give it time to recover."

Asked what he could do to help his condition before the playoffs, he quipped, "Take two weeks off."

Serving as designated hitter might help, but Ripken said, because running represents his biggest obstacle, it may also do nothing. "In the field, you're able to prepare yourself. You know what to expect. Running is different," he said.

Fearing a repeat of the controversy that accompanied last year's move of Ripken from shortstop to third base, Johnson hasn't dared suggest an adjustment in his most visible player's role. It is the organizational third rail.

Ripken started his 2,466th consecutive game last night. Any discussion of his sitting or even moving to DH for a short stretch is dismissed as "stirring it up." However, it hasn't escaped notice that Johnson has rested every other position player except Ripken.

Many within the organization acknowledge Ripken's shrinking range, just as the injured Roberto Alomar's inability to fully extend at second base cost Nerio Rodriguez a pair of first-inning singles to begin yesterday's loss.

There are those who believe The Streak has come to control Ripken and thereby also controls Johnson. There is no desire to stir a distraction with the postseason approaching. And no matter how much pain he is enduring -- and Ripken is loath to discuss its intensity -- Ripken's status is not subject to debate beyond his removal for several innings of an infrequent blowout.

After doubling and walking twice in the nightcap, Ripken yielded to pinch hitter Aaron Ledesma in the seventh inning.

During their 23-game skid, the Orioles have scored four runs or fewer 13 times. Only once in that span have they scored more than their season average five runs (5.03) in consecutive games.

Of his team's recent record, Johnson said: "I don't even like to look at the numbers, because those numbers aren't important to me right now. We were winning seven out of 10 for three quarters of the season. That's why we're here; that's why we're in the playoffs. The thing now is to get healthy and to regain momentum on the offense. It's tough to do when you come through the stretch we've had with these doubleheaders. You get worn out."

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