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 frequently seen him challenged, then watched his response.

Last night's 6-4 win over the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park featured the latest installment. Playing his second game since learning he is part of a time-share with Mike Kinkade at third base, Ripken answered with the most-telling swing within the Orioles' most-telling inning. A three-run homer off Tigers knuckleball pitcher Steve Sparks 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.

Then again, much of last night would have been dismissed as a farce in February.

"The best protection you give yourself as a player is to hit and play well," said Ripken. "If you hit and play well, you deserve to be in the lineup. I look for the opportunity to play in the field. If I'm worthy of the opportunity, then it will take care of itself.

"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 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."

Former minor-league free agent Willis Roberts (3-0) tied his former team for seven innings to claim the victory.

"He's been excellent," said catcher Brook Fordyce. "He's pitched ahead. Without exception, he's stretched the zone when he's been ahead. He's been terrific."

The Orioles survived after nearly blowing a 5-0 lead because Mike Bordick contributed a bases-empty home run in the top of the ninth and Ryan Kohlmeier gained his fourth save in the bottom of the inning.

But the game turned with Ripken's fifth-inning swing, the only hit within an oddly constructed breakout.

Sparks (1-2) rarely throws harder than 73 mph. But his bedeviling knuckler confounded the Orioles for four innings before he lost it with one out in the fifth.

Brady Anderson turned into a pitch to reach base. Consecutive walks to Bordick and Delino DeShields loaded the bases. Catcher Javier Cardona missed a Sparks floater to allow Anderson to score the game's first run. Conine then lifted a sacrifice fly to make a 2-0 game.

A walk to Jay Gibbons - the inning's third - brought the rally to Ripken, playing for the fourth time in seven games while the organization evaluates Kinkade. Ripken had flied to right field and center field in his two earlier at-bats. But on the fourth pitch of his third at-bat, Ripken hooked a drive that cleared the left-field corner 345 feet away.

The homer was Ripken's first as a part-time player and a tacit reply to a move that surprised him with its abruptness.

What is often described as Ripken's stubbornness is actually a manifestation of an unflinching competitiveness. At various points in his career, Ripken has responded to bothersome inferences by pounding the ball. He did so several times when The Streak was classified as a distraction or it was suggested that he give in to back pain during the team's 1997 pennant run.

Criticized for not sitting during the final days of the '97 season, Ripken responded by hitting .438 in the Division Series against Seattle, then hitting .348 with a home run against Cleveland in the American league Championship Series. Two weeks after being slotted into the No. 7 spot in the batting order for the first time since his rookie season, Ripken hammered three home runs and eight RBI on May 28, 1996.

Last night's home run came on his 55th at-bat of the season, temporarily lifted his average to .164 and gave him the team RBI lead with 9."[Ripken] started slow like a lot of us," Anderson said. "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 been playing a lot the last couple years injured, people might thing he's struggling right now because his skills have diminished. But I watched him very closely in spring and how he's moving. He's really good right now. It's not that his skills have diminished."

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