Minor endures burns at O's extra-hot corner

Struggling rookie finds Ripken, expectations cast a large shadow

August 17, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Each time opportunity knocks for Ryan Minor, he knows who's on the other side of the door.

He's been summoned by the Orioles twice this season, removed from Triple-A Rochester and asked to replace an icon.

Cal Ripken takes a fastball off his wrist, and Minor steps in at third base. Back spasms force Ripken onto the disabled list, and Minor again assumes the position.

There were no injuries involved last season but the same scenario played out. When baseball's Iron Man voluntarily ended his record consecutive-games streak last September, it was Minor's name that replaced Ripken's on the historic lineup card.

Minor's in only his fourth professional season, and he keeps getting in some pretty big shoes. Even at 6 feet 7, he has trouble filling them.

Assuming the lower-back stiffness that kept him on the bench Sunday has subsided, he'll most likely start at third again tonight when the Orioles begin a six-game homestand. Ripken's eligible to come off the DL, but has conceded he won't be ready. The club will use his absence as a means for getting a better look at Minor.

Here's what the Orioles have seen so far: A player who appears less comfortable in the field than in his two earlier stops, though there are the occasional flashes when he barehands a bunt and throws out a speedy runner. A player still feeling his way around the batter's box. A player who needs to shrug off whatever pressure has settled on his broad shoulders.

"What we're hoping to see is that he kind of relaxes a little bit and plays like he has at Triple-A and like he's played other times," said general manager Frank Wren.

"The hard part is when players come to the big leagues and get their chance to play, that they don't press so much that they don't really show you what they can do."

Minor, 25, is a combined 9-for-43 (.209) with the Orioles this season, including 8-for-33 (.242) in 11 games since his second recall on Aug. 3. Remove a 3-for-5 performance in Tampa Bay on Aug. 10, when he collected his only RBI of the season in a 17-1 win, and he has one hit in his last 19 at-bats.

The former college basketball All-American has insisted he's more comfortable now than when he had a brief stay here in July. He's waiting for the hits to keep coming.

"I'm a lot more aggressive at the ball and I'm swinging better," he said. "That's all I can ask for, to go out there and put myself in position to get a hit."

He was in position to make two plays in Friday night's game in Cleveland but couldn't come up with the ball after it found his glove. One was scored a hit, the other an error. Both led to runs in a game the Orioles lost, 6-3.

He's also had trouble getting to some balls hit to either side, but said, "I feel fine out there. It's just a matter of being consistent and trying to help the pitchers."

Manager Ray Miller has remained patient, knowing it makes more sense for Minor to continue playing and sympathizing with the challenge it brings to someone who got a late start in the game because of his interest in another sport.

"Young people are going to make mistakes," Miller said. "It's a pretty tough task for him right now. He was supposed to be a year away and we've gotten him up here twice."

Minor has put in some extra work with third base coach Sam Perlozzo, who monitors the infielders. He's concentrating on the way Minor sets up, offering tips without chipping away at the player's confidence. Sometimes, the less said, the better.

"I'd like to get him to start low and stay low and get off on the ball because he's a big guy," Perlozzo said. "It looked to me like he was a little flat-footed. I'm trying to get him into a position where he can get to the ball a little quicker and adjust when it gets there. All you can do is put a guy in a position to succeed. Then it's up to him to succeed.

"I've always heard he was a great defensive player. And one of the things I don't like to do when a kid comes up is go right in there and start making changes. You want him to feel comfortable first of all. And if you can get him to feel that way, then you can go ahead and start doing a few things. If you start fixing something that's not broken, you're going to end up getting his mind divided on what he's supposed to be doing.

"I usually give them a chance to come up and do some things and if I see it's not working, then I'll go ahead and go into action. He's made a few mistakes and I think it's time we just make little adjustments here and there. If it makes him feel good about himself, that's half the battle."

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