ARLINGTON, Texas - Asked what discovery has pleased him most since the Orioles exchanged a veteran clubhouse for an impressionable one, manager Mike Hargrove gives the name of a 26-year-old, left-handed hitter who wondered in 1998 whether his career might be over.
After a three-hit, five-RBI game in last night's 9-4 win over the Texas Rangers, rookie first baseman Chris Richard is batting .276 with nine home runs and 26 RBIs since being acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals on July 29 for reliever Mike Timlin.
Richard has come far since October 1997, when a headfirst slide during a Dominican Winter League game pushed a bone spur in his left shoulder through 75 percent of his rotator cuff. The injury left him unable to throw overhand and in constant pain. The extent of the injury wasn't fully known until Richard went in for arthroscopic surgery and awoke to find he'd be sidelined six to eight months.
"At that point, I really didn't know if I was going to be able to play again," he said. "Since then, I've had a different perspective on things."
Richard returned last year as a platoon first baseman at Double-A Arkansas, hitting .294 with 29 home runs and 94 RBIs. He played outfield at Triple-A Louisville before the July trade. No longer in the shadow of Mark McGwire, he received his 38th start at first base last night.
"To get to this point after the kind of surgery I had is pretty gratifying," said Richard. "Everything was up in the air for a while. To have this chance is special."
During the Orioles' 13-game road trip, Richard had two home runs and six RBIs in a Sept. 3 loss to the Cleveland Indians and homered in consecutive games against the Anaheim Angels in front of 30 friends and family members at Edison International Field.
"That was pretty special," Richard said. "You don't want to get ahead of yourself but to have that kind of week, especially to do that in front of your family ... that was pretty cool."
Richard has passed Calvin Pickering as the organization's leading first base prospect and will likely enter spring training as part of a first-base platoon with Jeff Conine. His nine home runs in 42 games give the Orioles reason to project significant numbers for a player they believe can develop further physically.
Right fielder Albert Belle left the team yesterday and is expected to meet with Hargrove and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift on Friday to determine a course of action for the rest of the season. Belle has missed the past nine games because of what the club describes as inflammation of the right hip. Thrift has remained vague about the cause pending further review of medical reports. Hargrove added yesterday he had no further information.
Friday's meeting will likely focus on how much, if any, Belle will play the rest of this season, according to Hargrove.
Ankle benches Conine
Conine missed a second consecutive game last night because of a ligament strain near his right ankle. Conine suffered the injury while descending the dugout steps in Anaheim on Monday. He attempted to play as designated hitter in the first game of Tuesday night's doubleheader. Conine felt sharp pain in the area as he ran out a first-inning grounder and was replaced by Greg Myers.
"It's a good thing I didn't have to really push it," Conine said. "I thought I might be able to play through it, but it was definitely there."
Hargrove described the injury as day-to-day Tuesday night, but he suggested yesterday that Conine's absence may be more protracted.
Waiting for Rivera
The Orioles continue to promote recently acquired pitching prospect Luis Rivera as the team's 50th player of the season when he makes his debut with the club. That day remains uncertain.
Thrift and Hargrove twice watched Rivera throw in the bullpen during the four-game series in Anaheim but remain unable to give a timetable for the right-hander's first American League appearance. Rivera has yet to warm up during a game.
Rivera experienced shoulder tendinitis after the Orioles acquired him from the Atlanta Braves on July 31 for left fielder B.J. Surhoff.
Despite club assurances that Rivera is sound, he apparently has yet to throw with maximum effort since being promoted Sept. 5.
Rivera made three starts for the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings, covering 8 1/3 innings.
Around the horn
Cal Ripken has 241 career hits against Texas, putting him third among Rangers opponents behind George Brett (291) and Paul Molitor (254). ... Texas' Rafael Palmeiro hit his 450th career double in last night's game.