Ace is A-OK in 13-6 return

Mussina goes 5, whiffs 6 A's as parade of O's, Ripken marches on

Johnson, Hairston rip 7 hits

Iron Man's 3-run HR drives 8th win in row

September 15, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

The Orioles stepped into a pennant race last night, bringing along the league's longest active winning streak, a recovering ace and a third baseman playing with purpose and a cooperative back.

The Oakland Athletics never had a chance. Representing American League small-market chic, they were on the hurting end of the Orioles' 13-6 bludgeoning that eased concerns about starting pitcher Mike Mussina and further invigorated third baseman Cal Ripken's quest for 3,000 hits.

Mussina pitched five innings in his first start since Aug. 22. He lasted long enough to leave with an 11-3 lead that eventually became his third consecutive win.

Ripken took four at-bats and on his third reached A's reliever Greg McMichael for his 18th home run, a three-run shot. He followed with a sixth-inning single before being removed for a pinch runner. Now only 16 hits shy of 3,000 with 17 games remaining, Ripken has helped make September a riveting time within a dead-end season.

The 69-76 Orioles crunched their season-high winning streak to eight games and raised themselves to 33-25 since the All-Star break. They are now within seven games of .500 for the first time since June 24 when they were 32-39. The blemishes that spoiled their year have given way to a more energetic look as rookies Jerry Hairston and Eugene Kingsale have more than compensated for some raw play with hustle and aggressiveness.

The loss was an especially hurtful one to the A's, whose five-game winning streak died as they slipped three games behind the wild card-leading Boston Red Sox.

Mussina (16-7) had not appeared in more than three weeks since being struck behind the right shoulder by Chicago White Sox catcher Brook Fordyce's line drive Aug. 22. Severely bruised and stiff for more than a week, Mussina had contemplated shutting down for the rest of the season before receiving positive feedback during two bullpen sessions in Minnesota last week.

"I think I did just about everything I was hoping I could do," said Mussina, whose fastball consistently reached 94 mph. "Five innings is about my maximum. We probably went eight or 10 pitches over what we were aiming at. I was somewhat surprised at my velocity. I was surprised at my changeup and my curve, which seemed to be pretty good."

Minus his injury-abbreviated start against the White Sox, Mussina has made seven quality starts in his past eight appearances.

Mussina walked one against six strikeouts. He surrendered a second-inning run after center fielder Kingsale played Matt Stairs' leadoff gap shot into a triple.

Mussina then avoided a potentially disastrous fourth inning by retiring the bottom third of the A's order to contain a two-run rally.

The Orioles bashed five A's pitchers for 16 hits, six for doubles and half for extra bases. Catcher Charles Johnson tied his career high with four hits. Hairston lifted his average to .282 with three. First baseman Ryan Minor parlayed some intense work with hitting coach Terry Crowley into several quality at-bats. His two hits were one more than he'd had since Aug. 22.

Ripken's home run and an opposite-field single in the sixth completed a 2-for-4 night and an 11-for-20 rush that has transformed his quest for 3,000 hits from a possibility to a certain drama as October approaches.

"It would be nice to take the way that I've felt for 300 at-bats and project it for 650 at-bats. But that's not possible, so I'm not sure what good there is talking about it," said Ripken. "It is what it is. I'm really happy with the way I'm swinging."

Ripken's home run came on a fastball beneath his hands, the same pitch that frequently tied him up the previous two seasons. Though manager Ray Miller stopped short of a full explanation, he did say that Crowley has led Ripken to trust his hand quickness again.

"It's nice to be able to hit the way you want," Ripken said. "It's nice to take a 96-mph pitch and turn it around. When you're hot, it seems like you can hit everything. When you're not, the opposite is true."

Ripken's tendencies support his run. He has accepted only 12 walks in 335 plate appearances. Ripken has never walked fewer than 46 times in a full season. Should Ripken play every remaining game -- a possibility given his pace, the absence of games on artificial turf and the hurdle of only one remaining day game following a night game -- a .250 average would virtually assure him of picking up 16 hits in the Orioles' remaining games.

Even given a ponderous start following his return from the disabled list, Ripken is riding a six-game hitting streak and is 16-for-46 in 13 games since being activated Sept. 1. The 18 home runs represent Ripken's most since 1996 and his third most since capturing a second Most Valuable Player Award in 1991.

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