His first at-bats put spring back into Ripken's step

Veteran's Florida debut goes smoothly

walks in first two appearances

Baseball

March 25, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Saying that he had slipped into his "game mode," Orioles third baseman Cal Ripken looked for some solitude yesterday before taking the field for the first time this spring. No video cameras, no questions about his health or his future in baseball. Just a private moment before the next - and very significant - step in his preparation for Opening Day.

He chose a plastic chair outside the Orioles' offices at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, with a view of the parking lot and fans lining up for tickets in the distance. It also put him directly in the path of media members walking to the press room.

"I wasn't aware of that," he said. "I guess this was bad planning on my part."

The rest of his afternoon went by without a hitch. It almost ended without a swing.

Starting at third base, Ripken walked twice, grounded to second and scored a run before leaving after four innings in the Orioles' 9-5 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. One game down, seven to go before another season begins.

No longer restricted by a fractured rib on his right side, Ripken scored from first base on a double by Melvin Mora in the first inning after walking on four pitches. Dodgers center fielder Tom Goodwin took a bad angle on the ball and couldn't cut it off as Ripken ran hard around the bases.

Dodgers starter Chan Ho Park walked him on five pitches in the second inning with two runners in scoring position and one out. Again, the bat never left Ripken's shoulder.

His only hack came on Park's first pitch to him with none out in the fourth inning. Ripken hit a sharp grounder to the right of Dodgers' second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, who bobbled the ball before getting the force at second base. Ripken moved up on a single by Brook Fordyce, and took third on another fielder's choice.

"I was wondering where my timing was, hitting-wise, and whether I'd get a chance to actually swing the bat," said Ripken, who decided against pinch-hitting in Friday's game in Jupiter, Fla., as a precaution. "I didn't think about the rib at all. I just went in and swung, and hit the ball hard. That was a good indication. I always find value in taking pitches. I laid off a couple breaking balls that sometimes I would have the tendency to swing at.

"Overall, I felt pretty good. I did a lot of things with a higher intensity than in practice, so I assume I'll have a little soreness in some places tomorrow that I don't know about right now. But I suspect that it'll be normal, and I'll just get ready for the game tomorrow."

Ripken's only play in the field came with one out in the second inning, when he charged a checked-swing bouncer from Chris Donnels and hesitated before throwing to first.

"I think I misread it a little bit," he said. "There was a force at second, but I took the safe out."

Barring an unexpected change in plans precipitated by his health, Ripken will remain in the lineup for today's game against the Montreal Expos in Jupiter.

"We'd like to ease into it the first couple days, at least, and then we'll go from there," said manager Mike Hargrove. "I know he wants to play all of them, but I think the first couple days we'll give him a couple at-bats. I'd like to give him at least three at-bats [today]. A lot depends on how he feels."

The day's loudest ovation was reserved for Ripken, with many fans rising to their feet before his first at-bat. Breaking out another new stance, with his right elbow raised, he took four outside pitches before scoring on Mora's double. He took a called strike in his next appearance before watching four straight pitches from Park miss the mark.

"He showed good discipline at the plate, not swinging the bat at all, and hit the ball hard his last time up. It was a good day for him," Hargrove said.

Looking ahead to the final week of the exhibition schedule, Hargrove projected that Ripken could receive 20 to 25 at-bats before heading north. Asked if that would be enough, Hargrove said, "I would assume it is. It better be. That's all he's going to get."

Ripken took careful strides to reach yesterday's debut. Not wanting to interrupt the healing process, he refrained from swinging a bat until March 12, when he ventured into the outdoor cage and hit off a tee. His progression included soft tosses from hitting coach Terry Crowley and a gradual increase in his activity during fielding drills, all the while allowing his body to dictate his pace. When each new day didn't bring new pain, he proceeded without interruption.

He batted sixth yesterday in a lineup still not intact for Opening Day. First baseman David Segui missed his 11th consecutive game with a strained right hamstring, an injury he aggravated during a March 12 game.

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