Cal Ripken's pursuit of 3,000 hits was put on hold yesterday when manager Mike Hargrove gave him the day off. He remains six hits away going into today's matchup with the Detroit Tigers, the last buffer before a six-game road trip that could carry the milestone away from Camden Yards and the numbers that hang from the warehouse.
Hargrove made the decision after Friday night's 14-10 victory over the Tigers, informing Jeff Conine that he would be receiving his first career start at third base the next afternoon. Surrounded by reporters in the Orioles' dugout before the game, Hargrove assured them the move had nothing to do with Ripken's surgically repaired lower back, which hasn't been an issue.
"I don't see Cal's movements being restricted," third base coach Sam Perlozzo said. "In spring training he was only playing five or six innings, so the next hurdle will be playing nine innings a game with a little adrenalin boost going. The games in spring training aren't quite as intense."
Ripken had been given the choice of when to sit this weekend. He chose to play today against Tigers left-hander C. J. Nitkowski.
"It's just a day off," Hargrove said, "and it gives me a chance to get Conine in the lineup two days in a row, which is good."
Though each start potentially brings Ripken closer to 3,000, Hargrove won't be held prisoner by the chase.
"That has no bearing on my decision at all," Hargrove said. "Cal and I can't predict when it's going to happen and play or manage accordingly. We'd love for it to happen at home, but if we go out there and the overriding thought in our mind is to play or manage the game so he'll get to 3,000 here, then it would defeat the purpose of competing."
Ripken's first breather came a day after hitting his first home run, a two-run shot off Dave Mlicki. Changing to a more upright stance, he also walked in four plate appearances before being replaced by Conine.
Hargrove repeated what has become his mantra since being hired in November: Ripken will play as much as his back dictates. And occasions like yesterday, coming off a night game and with an open date tomorrow, provide "the logical time to give him a break," Hargrove said.
Conine had been told during spring training that he'd probably start at third "maybe once a week" and get at-bats that otherwise would be scarce. He appeared in four games there last season, once losing a game in Seattle with an errant throw after charging a bunt. His time this spring was limited because of the flu and shoulder tendinitis, but he seemed to get more acclimated in the last week of camp.
"I've done a lot of work over there and I feel comfortable," he said. "Last year I was scared to death when they put me out there. Now I feel fine."
Conine handled both of his chances cleanly yesterday, once showing some range cutting off a bouncer in the hole. He also made strong and accurate throws to first base.
"My shoulder's back to normal. No problem," he said.
Shortstop Mike Bordick kept the lines of communication open with Conine.
"There are going to be some situations where if I happen to move over on a hitter, I might let him know where I'm positioning. But he certainly knows how to play over there," Bordick said.
"He's worked hard on it all spring. He looks good over there."