Versatile Conine gets the nod as team MVP

ORIOLES NOTEBOOK

Near-unanimous pick is leader in hits, RBIs

October 05, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Jeff Conine showed up at spring training uncertain how long he'd remain with the Orioles, as rumors circulated that the club would trade him for a younger, cheaper alternative.

He'll exit the 2001 season as the Most Valuable Oriole, an honor made official yesterday.

Conine missed by one vote of being a unanimous selection in balloting among 26 writers and broadcasters who cover the team. He's batting .313 with 14 homers and a team-best 96 RBIs. His 161 hits also lead the Orioles. His importance has been immeasurable.

Completing his third season with the Orioles, Conine has started at first base, third base, left field and right field, and also served as the designated hitter while appearing in 136 games.

With David Segui hampered by injuries for much of the season, the club has needed Conine's run production and veteran presence in the lineup. He continues to bring a nice return on Chris Fussell, the minor-league pitcher traded to Kansas City for Conine in 1999.

"Jeff has been our rock this year," said manager Mike Hargrove. "We've been able to build our lineup around him. What you see is what you get with Jeff, and what you get is usually golden."

Said Conine: "I'm glad I could be there and provide some stability in the lineup, and hopefully a little insight and guidance during the season for the young guys."

Seven players received votes. Jason Johnson finished second and Cal Ripken third.

The Sun's Joe Strauss cast a first-place vote for Albert Belle, who was forced into retirement during spring training because of a degenerative hip condition but remains on the 40-man roster.

"It's the ultimate addition by subtraction," Strauss said. "Conine is a truly deserving recipient."

The Sports Boosters of Maryland will present Conine with the award at its annual banquet Nov. 7 at Martin's West.

A first for Kohlmeier

His arm has been stretched out, his mind prepared as a starter's. All that's left for the Orioles' Ryan Kohlmeier is to take the ball today and see what happens.

He's not bracing for the worst.

Kohlmeier seems relaxed and somewhat curious about making his first major-league start. A closer when the season began, he'll climb the mound for the opener of a makeup doubleheader against the Boston Red Sox, the game unable to proceed until the first pitch leaves his hand.

"I'm excited about it," he said. "I know that an opportunity like this isn't going to come around real often."

One never knows.

"I think right now Ryan projects as a middle-relief, set-up type guy," manager Mike Hargrove said, "but if he pitches well in a starting role ... "

Kohlmeier, 1-1 with a 7.25 ERA in 33 relief appearances this season, will be trying something different - something that could lead to a role change in 2002, just as Chuck McElroy experienced after two September starts last year.

"I think right now they're just looking at it as a one-time thing, depending on how the outcome is," he said. "They may keep it in the back of their mind in the future, but I don't think they're looking at any change in roles."

Kohlmeier may have settled the issue with four shutout innings in Sunday's 1-1 tie in New York. The game ended after the 15th with rain falling and Hargrove grateful to get an extended effort from Kohlmeier that spared his bullpen further abuse.

"Ryan's a strike thrower," Hargrove said. "We stretched him out to four innings his last time out and that probably had as much to do with the decision to go ahead and start him as any."

If not for a conversion at Triple-A Rochester, Kohlmeier never would have been in this position.

He made seven starts there - the first of his career - to accumulate innings and develop more than two pitches. Able to use a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup, Kohlmeier lost all three decisions but posted a 2.31 ERA.

"I've gone full swing this year, from closer to middle relief to starter," he said. "I'm just going to go out and have some fun with it."

Around the horn

Temporary bleachers have been installed on the flag court in right field and above the bullpens to accommodate the extra fans for Cal Ripken's last games. ... Former Orioles Gary Roenicke and Rick Dempsey will sign autographs and greet fans at the Babe Ruth Museum tomorrow. Roenicke will be there from 11 a.m. to noon, and Dempsey from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

Orioles today

Opponent: Boston Red Sox in day-night doubleheader

Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Times: 1:05 p.m., 7:05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Game 1: Red Sox's Frank Castillo (9-9, 4.44) vs. Orioles' Ryan Kohlmeier (1-1, 7.25); Game 2: Red Sox's Sun Woo Kim (0-2, 6.06) vs. Orioles' Jose Mercedes (8-17, 5.89)

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