The Orioles furthered their season of transition last night. It involved a 4-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians before 28,801 at Camden Yards, a fourth game of little support for starting pitcher Pat Hentgen and a lineup twist perhaps most telling of all.
Handled by Indians starting pitcher Bartolo Colon, the Orioles narrowly avoided their third shutout in 15 games. They did so with rookie Mike Kinkade at third base, an arrangement that manager Mike Hargrove said would likely repeat tonight.
Kinkade contributed two singles and a walk and also became involved in an inning-ending doubpe play and the game's most significant defensive lapse. They are growing pains the Orioles are willing to endure.
Hargrove said before last night's game that he did not plan to start Ripken in either of the series two games. Barring a reversal this afternoon, the move represents the first time a healthy Ripken has ever failed to start consecutive games since 1982."At his age coming off two years of injuries, he's not the everyday player he used to be," Hargrove said. "But he is a future Hall of Famer who's going to play ... not every day."
Though Ripken's off days have become a lesser issue this year, Hargrove's statement surprised those who believed the Iron Man would rest, but not necessarily in consecutive days.
"We'll deal with tomorrow when it gets here," Ripken said.
Hargrove faces a dilemma unlike any of his predecessors: how to give appropriate time to an organizational and industry icon while adhering to the team's renovation blueprint.
The Orioles have very little wiggle room with Kinkade. At 27, he lacks minor-league options, meaning he must remain in Baltimore or be exposed to irrevocable waivers. He is also considered an offensive player who entered this season with just 57 major-league at-bats but a .335 career minor-league average. Kinkade led the Eastern League in hitting last season at an advanced age for Double-A while used primarily as a catcher.
"We need to find out about him," Hargrove said.
Said Kinkade: "I haven't looked at this situation as anything other than being ready to play every day. Every day I'm put in the lineup I'm going to give my best whether it's at third, first or left field."
Ripken is one of six corner infielders on a roster that includes no backup middle infielder. To feed Kindkade, Jay Gibbons and Chris Richard at-bats at the same time is difficult under such constraints.
While Hargrove tries to serve experience and youth, Ripken is attempting to find a comfort zone at the plate. Coming off a spring training abbreviated by a rib fracture, Ripken is still seeking his offensive rhythm while batting .125 with one double and 4 RBI in 40 at-bats.
"It's an interruption to some degree," said Ripken, who batted .247 with 14 last April following another spring training in which hs work load gradually increased.. "The only way you're going to get it straightened out is being on the field between the lines. At-bats and success you have during the game helps you get going. So I don't think it's overly disruptive but it's a part of the season when it's hard to get on track. The weather and the irregularity of the schedule add to it. But I don't see it as a negative right now."
Without Ripken, the 6-9 Orioles scratched for six hits, including two each from Kinkade and catcher Greg Myers. Held to fewer than four runs for the 10th time, the Orioles continue to seek a lineup that can manufacture more than a sporadic threat.
"I don't know if it's finding the right combination," said Hargrove, who has tried 14 lineups in 15 games. "I think it's a matter of getting guys untracked, getting them settled and being the hitters they can be and the players their talent says they are. We've got 147 left to play. It's going to turn for us."
Hitting .199, the Orioles have managed 10 hits in only one nine-inning game They are 29-for-163 (.178) against the Indians, who face the Orioles tonight for the final time this season.
Armed with a power assortment similar to Sidney Ponson's, Colon (2-1) allowed nothing through eight innings. The Orioles avoided the season's third shutout against Bob Wickman in the ninth inning when first baseman Chris Richard followed Myers' one-out single with a double into the right-center field gap. A walk to Kinkade brought Jerry Hairston to the plate with the tying run, but he strtuck out looking for the second time.
"It was one of those nights where I couldn't pull the trigger," Hairston said. "They made some good pitches on the outside corne. You try to fight them off. But for some reason I couldn't pull the trigger. I wish I could but it's too late now."
Hentgen (0-2) lasted only 5 2/3 innings, striking out one while walking three. He remains winless despite a 2.59 ERA inflated by one of the season's most bizarre defensive plays, which led to a two-run second.