MINNEAPOLIS -- Matt Riley makes his much-anticipated major-league debut tonight against the Minnesota Twins. Played between two teams a combined 35 games under .500, the game will be witnessed by fewer than 10,000 fans within the cavernous Metrodome but scrutinized to an exponential degree by virtually every member of the Orioles' front office.
The precocious, left-handed Riley -- 20 years, 39 days old -- becomes the youngest Orioles pitcher to make a start since Mike Adamson appeared July 1, 1967, at 19 years, 291 days. Riley's debut also ranks as the organization's most anticipated since Mike Mussina arrived in July 1991. His first major-league appearance occurs less than 16 months after he signed as a draft-and-follow third-rounder from the 1997 amateur draft.
Manager Ray Miller has participated in the organizational attempt to downplay Riley's appearance. Miller insists he hopes for nothing more than five innings from Riley, who suffered a rough start in Double-A Akron last Saturday after being told of his pending promotion two days before by general manager Frank Wren. Riley's coming-out party was scheduled for tonight instead of at Camden Yards because of an anticipated low turnout and the absence of a media circus.
"I'm not going to let him go far," said Miller. "If I could get five good innings from him and get him out of there, I would. That will be up to the Minnesota Twins."
"I don't place that much significance on just one game," said Wren, who allowed Riley to escape Bowie last Thursday before releasing his promotion to Baltimore media. "I think it's a growth process for Matt. I think the more young players we get to the big leagues the more it legitimizes the organization, which has been down for some time. I don't think that tomorrow's game alone is the validation we're looking for. We've seen [Jerry] Hairston and [Eugene] Kingsale do well. Each one of these guys as they come along shows we have some depth."
Riley also has been able to low-key the event.
"I just expect to do what I did in all my starts at Double-A," said Riley, who finished 13-8 between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie. "I'm not going to be overly clever. I'm going to throw the same pitches and hopefully have the same location I had against the hitters I faced this summer."
Riley says he is better prepared for the moment because of his more mature assortment of pitches. It was Riley's improved changeup and curveball that persuaded Wren and a majority of player development personnel to recommend that Riley be given this shot. At the same time, Riley concedes that an unprecedented innings load has sapped "about 2 or 3 mph" off a fastball he can still locate but not use to overpower hitters.
"I've had to make some adjustments because of it," Riley said. "But I think in a lot of ways that has helped make me a better pitcher. I've had to rely more on off-speed stuff."
Ripken moves up in lineup
As promised, Miller promoted Cal Ripken within the lineup last night, batting him fifth partly because of his favorable history against Twins starter LaTroy Hawkins and partly because of his intensifying pursuit of 3,000 hits.
Ripken, who went 0-for-4, has typically occupied the seventh slot in the batting order while hitting .322 with 16 home runs and 50 RBIs in 295 at-bats. Last night's assignment was only the second time this season he has batted fifth. (The other came July 31.) Ripken entered last night with a .529 career average (9-for-17) against Hawkins.
Ripken's night against Hawkins began with a dull piece of history when he grounded into a 4-6-3 double play in the first inning. The double play was the 323rd of Ripken's career, tying him with Carl Yastrzemski for the most in American League history and leaving him five behind Hank Aaron for the all-time record.
Earlier this season Miller suggested he might bat Ripken as high as second to ensure his receiving more at-bats. That possibility has apparently been shelved out of deference to Mike Bordick and B. J. Surhoff, both of whom are also having strong offensive seasons.
Miller lifted Ripken in favor of Jeff Reboulet after his third at-bat Tuesday night, and brought in Ryan Minor after his fourth at-bat last night, a move he will likely repeat to protect Ripken's lower back. The good news for Ripken is that tonight's series finale vs. the Twins represents the Orioles' final game on artificial turf this season.
Ripken needs 27 hits in the Orioles' last 23 games to reach the career milestone. He is 5-for-26 (.192) in seven games since being activated from the disabled list Sept. 1 with one home run and one multi-hit game. Prior to going on the disabled list Aug. 1, Ripken had hit safely in 18 of his last 20 games.
The leading casualty of Ripken's return has been Minor.
Having batted .192 since his promotion from Triple-A Rochester on Aug. 3, Minor has one hit in his last 11 games. He apparently will receive his next regular playing time with Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League.
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