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Hitting has O's in 7th heaven


DETROIT -- Too many times during his Hall of Fame career with the Orioles, Cal Ripken has been left to shoulder the responsibility by himself.

If he looks like a man who has had a burden lifted, perhaps he is.

Ripken had the biggest hit for the Orioles in yesterday's 7-4 victory over Detroit in the Tigers' home opener witnessed by 50,314 paying customers.

But the Orioles could have won it even without Ripken's two-run triple in the four-run third inning, a two-out whistler that shot past center fielder Eric Davis.

As should be the case all year, Ripken had plenty of help.

Ben McDonald took a one-hit shutout into the eighth inning and settled for a combined four-hitter with Alan Mills and Jim Poole.

And Ripken had plenty of company in pummeling Detroit starter Tim Belcher (0-2, 8.31), the right-hander who signed a one-year, $3.4 million free-agent contract over the winter. Belcher lasted one out into the sixth, allowed six hits, seven walks and seven runs (three earned).

The hits never stopped coming for the Orioles, who scored seven runs for the third game in a row. They are averaging six runs per game, which explains how they have shaped a 4-2 record despite a 4.83 staff ERA.

"It's really clicked pretty well," Ripken said of the lineup that welcomed off-season free-agent additions Rafael Palmeiro and Chris Sabo and a return to health of Jeffrey Hammonds. "The good thing is we don't have to feel out of the game if we get down early. Raffy's got his power going. Harold Baines is always clutch. Everyone is contributing. I hope that continues."

Palmeiro, Baines and Ripken drove in five of the Orioles' runs and accounted for five of the 11 hits.

"Those three guys are hitting 3, 4, and 5 for a reason, but I think the rest of the guys in the lineup are pretty good hitters, too," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said.

The heart of the order produced consistently in the first week of the season. Yesterday, Palmeiro drove in a pair of runs with a sixth-inning single off left-handed reliever Bill Krueger, who was brought in to face the left-handed hitter who blends power and grace.

"Palmeiro has to be one of the 10 best hitters in the game," Tigers manager Sparky Anderson said. "Go ahead and put them any way you want, but he has to be one of them."

Palmeiro is batting .348 with three home runs and eight RBI. Baines contributed two singles, including one that pushed across a run in the third. He raised his batting average to .364.

Ripken, who batted .338 during spring training, is hitting .320.

"I felt in the opening series in Baltimore I was a little jumpy," Ripken said. "I wanted to get off to a good start. I was able to calm that down and get a few hits. Spring training went real smooth and the beginning of the season has been pretty good."

More than his own performance, Ripken is excited about the depth of the Orioles' lineup.

"A lot of people talk about who's hitting behind you when they talk about having protection," Ripken said. "I'm a firm believer if the whole lineup is hitting well that provides protection for everyone."

Most importantly, it eases the burden on any one hitter.

"Generally, we're all benefiting from it," Ripken said. "We all know we have a good lineup. When that happens it allows you to relax. The key to scoring runs is relaxing and letting your skills take over."

While the Orioles were scoring runs yesterday, four in the third, three in the sixth, McDonald (2-0, 2.57) was preventing the powerful Tigers lineup from doing the same.

McDonald struck out eight, walked three, allowed three hits and two runs before Mills came on with two outs and two on in the eighth.

McDonald retired the first 11 batters he faced and had eight strikeouts one out into the sixth inning. Through seven innings, he allowed just two base runners. Eric Davis reached on a two-out double, a liner down the right-field line that was followed by a walk to Cecil Fielder.

McDonald set down 10 in a row before losing it all at once at the start of the eighth. Mickey Tettleton and Kirk Gibson singled and Alan Trammell walked to load the bases with none out. Junior Felix and Tony Phillips pushed across runs with groundouts, McDonald walked Lou Whitaker, and Oates sent for Mills, who bTC retired Davis on a pop to second.

The Orioles' 7-2 lead was trimmed to 7-4 when Travis Fryman homered to left in the ninth.

Afterward, McDonald talked about the benefits of pitching for a team loaded with hitters and the hitters talked about the soothing effect of playing behind the Orioles' pair of aces, McDonald and Mike Mussina.

"Ben, from the halfway point last year to now, he's been super," Ripken said. "He's very confident out there and we're confident behind him. Ben and Mike both. The only question with Mussina was whether he was over his injury. I think he answered that Opening Day."

McDonald answered questions about his tender elbow with two strong starts. "Ben easily could have won 20 games the way he pitched last year, we just didn't score any runs for him," Oates said.

One more time, the Orioles showed scoring runs should be the least of their problems this year.

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