Searching for a place on the Orioles bench, Cal Ripken asked innocently, "Do you want me to sit up?"
And because he could do just that without a wince or a trace of exaggerated effort, Ripken extended the best answer possible even before he fielded questions before last night's 3-1 win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays before 37,009 at Camden Yards.
Exactly one month and 27 games after landing on the disabled list for the second time this season -- which meant the second time of his 19-year career -- Ripken resumed his chase of something positive within an overcast season. Before the night was done, Orioles starter Doug Johns (4-2) had done the same with 6 2/3 innings that began a tag-team five-hitter.
The 2-hour, 6-minute game ended with Ripken taking an 0-for-3, half the assigned umpiring crew learning that they would not have jobs today, Mike Timlin closing for his 18th save and Albert Belle contributing his 30th homer, a two-run shot, and a seventh-inning single and stolen base to help account for all his team's runs.
For Belle, the night assured his eighth consecutive 30-homer season. He becomes only the 16th player in the game's history to hit that many that often.
For Johns, his second consecutive creditable start suggested he may represent at least a left-handed alternative as next season's fifth starter.
For Ripken, the game was likened to "my third Opening Day of the year."
Unfortunately for the Orioles, Ripken's comfortable metaphor couldn't extend to his team, which greeted his return in last place after experiencing a 10-17 August. But just like Opening Day the Orioles found a way to beat the problematic Devil Rays. For their trouble, the Orioles reclaimed fourth place and won for only the second time in seven games.
Ripken's return did not paint history. He grounded into an inning-ending double play in the second, struck out looking to begin the fifth and hit into a second double play to end the seventh. Quick to exit afterward, he sounded confident before the game that the layoff's effect would be negligible.
"Earlier in the season, I didn't have as much to fall back on," said Ripken, who experienced a distracted spring training because of his father's death and then was pulled from the third inning on Opening Day because of back stiffness. "There was a lot of uncertainty. I needed to get ready earlier in the year. I have only missed a month. I know it's not the same as if I'd been playing every day for a month but physically I feel pretty good. During batting practice, it feels pretty normal. But the only way to find out what it's like in a game is to go in a game. I feel like I'm ready to go."
His defensive game didn't include a chance until the sixth inning. There were no warm-up questions allowed. With two outs, catcher John Flaherty chopped a two-out grounder that Ripken charged, gloved and fired in time to beat the hitter by a step.
"Having gone through a good portion of the season and having felt on top of your offensive game, that wasn't a worry coming back," he said beforehand. "Defensively, you've got to bend a little bit. You've got to twist a little bit. Some of those movements are little more awkward than swinging."
Miller replaced Ripken with Jeff Reboulet after the seventh inning. Ripken briefly interrupted the manager's post-game briefing to assure the assemblage that he felt fine.
"Hey, tell them it felt great to be back in there and physically everything's cool," Ripken said on his way out.
Beforehand, Ripken sounded more confident in the return of his offensive skills, which had carried him to a .335 average, .591 slugging percentage, 15 home runs and 47 RBIs in 269 at-bats before he experienced a recurrence of numbness and pain while eating breakfast in Seattle on Aug. 1. Ripken had returned to Baltimore the next day, received a cortisone injection and then waited for rapid improvement. Instead, his second stay outlasted his first.
Before last night's return, Ripken was left with 31 games to compile 32 hits for his career 3,000th. He is tantalizingly close to his 400th home run, having stood on 399 for August after narrowly missing the milestone his last two home games July 28-29. Ripken admitted yesterday to trying to force the home run.
"I'm trying not to think about that at all. It has nothing to do with me hurrying to get back. I hoped it would be 15 days, but how long it took to get back was how long it took to get back," Ripken said. "I'm just going to go out there and not think about hitting a home run and not think about how many hits I need and just try to have good at-bats, continue a good season and just do well."
Perhaps most uncomfortable, Ripken will have to grind a little bit to reach two landmarks that could define his season.
"The frustrating part is I haven't been able to go out there and take that good swing for the majority of the season," said Ripken, who had eight hits and six runs scored in his last 16 at-bats before going on the disabled list. "There have been a couple of magical seasons for me offensively, particularly the second half of '83 and all of '91 when I had the feeling that I had this year. It was disappointing not to be able to go out there and ride that.
"I hope I can step back in and it'll be back there. I don't know."
O's outfield gets new look
The Orioles shake up their outfield alignment, moving Brady Anderson to left and B. J. Surhoff to designated hitter and putting Eugene Kingsale in center. 6d
Opponent: Tampa Bay
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05 TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Devil Rays' Rolando Arrojo (4-9, 4.79) vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson (10-11, 5.22)
Tickets: About 10,000 remain
Albert Belle last night extended his streak of consecutive 30-homer seasons to eight, putting him in a tie for fifth on the all-time list:
Player, years ..................Streak
Jimmie Foxx, 1929-40 ..........12
Lou Gehrig, 1929-37...............9
Eddie Mathews, 1953-61 .......9
Mike Schmidt, 1979-87 ..........9
Mickey Mantle, 1955-62 .........8
Babe Ruth, 1926-33 ..............8
Albert Belle, 1992-99 .............8
Pub Date: 9/02/99