CHICAGO -- Throughout this season's pursuit of 3,000 hits, Cal Ripken maintained that the pressure associated with it had taken a toll on his approach.
The week since Ripken reached the goal has validated his claim.
Close to finding the comfort zone that has proved elusive since spring training, Ripken enters tonight's game against the Chicago White Sox enjoying a seven-game hitting streak that has raised his average from .176 to .271 since his line single off Minnesota Twins reliever Hector Carrasco.
Ripken once described himself as trying to get "six hits every at-bat" while chasing his latest milestone. The result was a painful series of pop-ups and strikeouts. In the past nine days, his poor at-bats have become a glaring exception.
"I'm getting close," Ripken said yesterday. "You never really let yourself believe you're all the way there, but I feel better than I did before."
Since singling three times to reach 3,000 hits in Minnesota on April 15, Ripken is hitting .350 (7-for-20) with two home runs and seven RBIs. Before his three-hit outburst against the Twins, Ripken was hitting .176 with two home runs and six RBIs in 34 at-bats.
More patient at the plate, Ripken has struck out only twice in his past 29 at-bats after striking out six times in his first 30 at-bats.
"I became a little impatient before [3,000]," he said. "I feel like I've been waiting a little longer. And that extra tenth of a second, if that's what it is, allows me to stay back and be a little quicker."
An example of Ripken's improved approach came last Wednesday when he slammed a game-winning home run on a breaking pitch that might have frozen him earlier in the month. "Before, I wouldn't have been able to swing at that pitch or [would have] made a poor swing. By staying back, I was able to react and drive the ball. It's a very fine line, but it makes a big difference."
Manager Mike Hargrove gave Ripken last night off, an anticipated move because of the club's complicated travel from Oakland after Sunday night's 11-inning, 3-2 loss to the A's. The Orioles were greeted by temperatures in the upper 40s and a stiff northern breeze. Jeff Conine, who had hit safely in eight of nine games in which he had received an at-bat, played in Ripken's place. Conine went hitless, but had several impressive defensive plays at his first-year position.
After yesterday's 5: 45 a.m. arrival at Midway Airport, merely able to flex and stretch his back represented an accomplishment for Ripken. A year ago, two of the Orioles' three cross-country flights preceded his landing on the disabled list or undergoing season-ending back surgery.
Ripken, fifth on the team with a .492 slugging percentage, had played five consecutive games before last night and had started 11 of the previous 13. Hargrove insists he has not prescribed a schedule for Ripken but will merely be governed by common sense.
The much-debated makeup game for the Orioles' April 17 rainout against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays has been rescheduled a second time, this time for Aug. 26 at 1: 35 p.m. as part of a day-night doubleheader. The makeup originally had been rescheduled for a June 8 open date but that was trashed after a clubhouse uprising by the Devil Rays, who sacrificed another day off April 20 to make up a second rainout.
"Moving the game to August works to everyone's benefit, especially our fans," said Orioles chief operating officer Joe Foss. "By playing on a Saturday afternoon rather than a Thursday afternoon, we believe more fans will be able to take advantage of their original tickets."
Fans holding tickets for the April 17 game should use them for the Aug. 26 afternoon game. The second half of the doubleheader is scheduled for 7: 05 p.m. Of course, separate tickets are required for that game.
To sleep at dawn
The Orioles arrived at Comiskey Park yesterday a bleary-eyed bunch. A scheduling conflict with their team charter prevented them from leaving Oakland until shortly before midnight Sunday night and their flight reached Chicago as the sun rose shortly before 6 a.m. Central time.
Hargrove moved swiftly to keep from further sapping his team. Batting practice and pre-game infield were canceled and most players arrived at the park shortly before a 5: 45 p.m. meeting.
Starting pitcher Mike Mussina might have reconsidered his decision not to fly ahead of the team. He stayed in Oakland for Sunday's game and found himself taking the mound last night barely 12 hours after stumbling into his hotel room.
The plane that served as their charter also was used to fly the Toronto Blue Jays from Ontario to Oakland. However, that flight was delayed to refuel and to clear customs in Denver.
Around the horn
Scott Erickson makes a rehab start tonight in Frederick in what could be his last test before rejoining the Orioles' starting rotation. The Single-A Keys will face the Potomac Cannons at Harry Grove Stadium. Special assistant Bob Schaefer has been dispatched to evaluate Erickson, who will face hitters for the first time since undergoing arthroscopic elbow surgery March 3. ... The bottom of the lineup entered last night hitting a collective .303 (56-for-185) with 11 home runs and 44 RBIs. ... Catcher Charles Johnson, who has been slumping since his lightning start, connected for his sixth home run. He entered last night 1-for-12 in his past four games, though he has hit safely in 12 of 15 games with an at-bat. ... No. 7 hitter Will Clark entered last night having reached base in 32 of 60 plate appearances but went 0-for-3, striking out twice. ... The Orioles have outscored opponents 37-21 in the first two innings; they have been outscored 30-13 after the seventh inning.