Ripken gains keep coming

On-field hitting latest step

caution continues on opener

`Today was a good day'

O's third baseman still hopeful of taking 1st at-bats Saturday

March 21, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken yesterday took a "significant" step toward his first game appearance of the 5-week-old camp, but stopped short of guaranteeing his presence in the Opening Day lineup.

"I don't like to make projections," Ripken said after a morning workout on a back field at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. "I don't see any value to that. My goal is to be ready Opening Day and we're working toward that every day.

"I can't sit here and project with all certainty I'm going to meet that goal. It's my intention to work hard and do that. Each day we're getting more information on whether I can do that or not. Today was a good day."

Ripken's routine included on-field hitting for the first time this spring. Batting practice pitcher Rudy Arias fed Ripken about 50 pitches after he had taken 130 swings in a covered cage.

On orders from hitting coach Terry Crowley, Ripken did not attempt to pull pitches or swing with maximum effort. More concerned with regaining timing than generating power, Ripken sprayed the majority of Arias' pitches into center and right-center fields.

Ripken left the workout admitting "it's impossible to say" whether he feels assured of being available on Opening Day.

"Even if you're 100 percent healthy, it's impossible to say it's a go because the day before Opening Day something might happen," he said.

The 40-year-old Ripken should know. Two years ago, he thought himself ready to go, only to have back spasms chase him from the season opener. Though he originally projected his return from his current condition to be 2-4 weeks, he has intentionally adopted a more cautious approach in both his return and his projections.

Last season's goal of not returning to the disabled list proved costly when Ripken ignored early indications of back trouble and ultimately missed 59 games after June 29.

He has set a timetable in which he expects to begin playing Saturday in hopes of amassing 20-25 at-bats before the April 2 opener against the Boston Red Sox.

Ripken first intends to put himself through several more mornings such as yesterday's, when he took 30 swings off a tee, 50 swings one-handed and 50 swings two-handed before taking batting practice on the field. He capped his day by fielding about 75 grounders at third base, then running.

Manager Mike Hargrove continues to sound confident Ripken will be in his Opening Day lineup, a lineup that already will be absent cleanup hitter Albert Belle and is awaiting the return of switch-hitting first baseman David Segui, sidelined since March 6 with an aggravated hamstring pull.

"Every team has to face those things. There's no way to plan for it," Ripken said. "You have to keep in mind it's a 162-game season. It's a long way.

"The components of your team are put together knowing some things might happen. If I'm not ready or Segui's not ready, you find out about those things as you go along."

Playing this weekend is essential in Ripken's progress toward Opening Day. As much as he needs to accumulate at-bats, it's equally important that he allay fears about his body balking at certain activities. He does not plan to dive for any ground balls until the season starts, he said yesterday, but hopes to swing a bat with full force when confronted by an opposing pitcher.

"The game intensity is different. That's why we play games before the season," he said.

Added Ripken: "The repetition of making swings helps your timing, No. 1, and that's a necessary part of getting back. I want to go to the plate and not think about my ribs. In the back of your mind, with one hard swing or one pull-off, there's an uncertainty about what would happen."

Ripken's drill work has so far been designed to enhance timing. Even given last season's abbrevated spring, he was able to generate four home runs and 15 RBIs in 81 April at-bats. He did not produce an extra-base hit during last year's Grapefruit League.

Crowley described his eldest pupil's progress as "on target." Should Ripken begin playing daily this weekend, Crowley sees no reason why he can't be ready for the opener.

"He's getting there. He's able to move more freely now than a week or two weeks ago," Crowley said. "He's got a timetable and he's sticking to it."

Should Ripken be unable to start Opening Day, the Orioles would likely turn to rookie Mike Kinkade. One of four players acquired in last July's trade that sent shortstop Mike Bordick to the New York Mets, Kinkade has virtually assured himself of a roster spot with a breakout camp.

His five home runs are second in the Grapefruit League. His power represents a possible answer to a club that lost its leading run producer when Belle was assigned to the 60-day disabled list with a degenerative hip condition.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift meanwhile continues to shop utility player Jeff Conine, Ripken's backup last season, because of salary, age and contract issues.

The Orioles have approached the Anaheim Angels, who lost first baseman Mo Vaughn for the season to a ruptured biceps tendon.

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