Ripken blast propels Orioles

3-run homer in 5th is big blow in team's 6-4 win over Tigers

O's third victory in row

Roberts runs mark to 3-0

Bordick hits HR in ninth

April 26, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

DETROIT - There is something innate within Cal Ripken that elevates him from a mere All-Star to an icon. The sum of his statistics and consecutive games played provide only the framework for a career that has included an answer for every challenge.

Last night's 6-4 win by the Orioles over the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park featured the latest installment.

Playing his second game since learning he is part of a third base time-share with Mike Kinkade, Ripken answered with the most telling swing within the Orioles' most telling inning. A three-run homer against Tigers knuckleballer Steve Sparks (1-2) in the fifth inning was not only Ripken's first home run of the season but also his first rejoinder to an arrangement he could not have foretold in spring training.

The Orioles' breakout five-run fifth inning rewarded rookie starting pitcher Willis Roberts (3-0) for seven impressive innings against the team that originally signed him but granted him only one major-league appearance in seven years. Roberts left a 5-1 game and sweated out a shaky bullpen effort, but he ultimately shared in what Ripken described as "a relief."

"It's a long season with a lot of at-bats. It feels good to get the monkey off my back ... It feels good that I contributed," said Ripken.

Said manager Mike Hargrove: "It was a big hit for us tonight. A knuckleball is really a difficult pitch to hit. Good hitters will tell you that when they swing they can't be sure they're going to make contact."

The home run, wrapped around the left-field foul pole, was Ripken's first as a part-time player and a tacit reply to a move that surprised him with its abruptness. It came on his 55th at-bat of the season, temporarily lifted his average to .164 and gave him the team RBI lead with 9.

"He's started slow like a lot of us," said outfielder Brady Anderson. "He's always been an underrated defensive player, for whatever reason. He had a short spring, and he came out struggling like a lot of us. If it is a challenge, I'm sure he'll rise above it.

"I think because he's played a lot the last couple years injured, people might think he's struggling right now because his skills have diminished. But I watched him very closely in spring and how he was moving. He's really good right now. It's not that his skills have diminished. He's struggling like most guys on the team have struggled for a good part of the month."

Ripken's situation has not escaped the notice of the clubhouse's remaining veterans. Nor has the organizational tact been embraced.

"I don't know what they're doing," said Anderson when asked if he understood the club's rationale.

Ripken has answered challenges before, whether it be over playing shortstop or third base, playing 2,632 consecutive games or playing through injuries that some argued might have been better treated with rest. Invariably, Ripken has risen to the level of whatever scrutiny he has received.

"You're challenged every single day you go out there, every single year you go out there. You can't rest on your laurels and say you deserve an opportunity because of the past. You have to perform," he said. "You're answering the challenge every single day. To me, the most encouraging part is that physically I've felt as good as I've felt in three or four years."

It is also the most frustrating part. Ripken was told by Hargrove that his diminished playing time is unrelated to his early struggles. Without directly contradicting the organization's mantra, Ripken sounded last night as if he believes a merit-based system should remain in place.

"There's a bigger plan, a master plan," acknowledged Ripken. "We're in a rebuilding process, but we're also trying to win right now, too. Those decisions are made by those who guide the team. As a player, your best security, your best defense is to go out and make the most out of every opportunity, so when the manager sits in his room and fills out his lineup, he wants to put you in. That's the way it has been in baseball forever."

Hargrove said afterward that Ripken will not start at third base this afternoon, maintaining an arrangement that has Kinkade playing every other game.

It's not the only example of trading places.

Only a year ago, the Tigers cut Roberts to make roster room for free-agent acquisition Hideo Nomo. Now Nomo is throwing no-hitters for the Boston Red Sox and Roberts has found a home within the Orioles' ever-changing starting rotation. It has been that kind of season for the 5-14 Tigers, who lost their seventh consecutive game, while the 10-11 Orioles ran their season-high win streak to three.

One night after beating themselves with weird defense, the Tigers couldn't overcome Sparks' sudden loss of control. Ripken's home run inside the left-field foul pole was the only hit within an outburst primed by a hit batsman, three walks, a wild pitch and a passed ball.

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