Jeff Conine's string of 29 consecutive starts at first base ended last night when Orioles manager Ray Miller penciled Ryan Minor's name in the lineup.
Conine is batting .322 (37-for-115) with six doubles, five homers and 28 RBIs since replacing the injured Will Clark at first. But he also is in the midst of a 3-for-28 slump that included five hitless at-bats in Monday's 5-4, 10-inning victory over Seattle.
At least his luck is improving. He bounced to the mound with two runners on base in the 10th, but Mariners reliever Jose Mesa threw away the potential double-play ball to allow B. J. Surhoff to score and spare Conine further anguish.
"The frustration's building a little bit," he said, "so I'll take a day and let it subside and come back fresh tomorrow."
"I told him to shut it down," Miller said. "We figured we'd give him a break."
Miller also wanted to give Minor a start. He hadn't played first base with the Orioles this season, but made several starts there with Triple-A Rochester and during the past two spring trainings.
Minor had scuffled at the plate since rejoining the Orioles on Aug. 3, going 14-for-74 (.189) in 29 games before last night. But Miller was hopeful some recent work with hitting coach Terry Crowley would pay off.
"Crow's been real excited with the way Minor's been swinging the bat the last two or three days. He's really driving the ball well and centering the ball on the bat head all the time," Miller said.
"Everybody talks about him as a third baseman but I've always liked him at first."
Minor lived up to his manager's expectations with a single and a double. And he redeemed himself after a third-inning error by making a sprawling unassisted double play on a liner to end the sixth.
"I'm very comfortable there," Minor said of first base. "I've played there a lot, so it's not that big of a deal. It's a chance to give Jeff a day off and get some rest. The main thing for me is to go out there and play and have fun," he said.
Calvin Pickering seemed a logical replacement for Conine since first base is his natural position and he would have added another left-handed bat against Oakland right-hander Mike Oquist. But Pickering told Miller on Monday that he was weakened by a virus.
Riley relaxed for round 2
With one start under his belt and some of the hype having dissipated, rookie left-hander Matt Riley said he's feeling more relaxed going into tonight's home debut against Oakland.
Riley, who'll be working on five days' rest, was chased after 2 2/3 innings in Minnesota. Never appearing comfortable, the former third-round draft pick allowed two runs, four hits and four walks among his 69 pitches. He also balked twice while having trouble picking up the signs from catcher Charles Johnson.
"I have a plan this time. I really know what it takes to pitch out there. I think I'm a lot better prepared for this game," said Riley, 20, the organization's top prospect who's expected to join the rotation next spring.
"I learned you've got to stay relaxed. You can't let your mental game take over or you're going to be a mess out there, like I was. I was having some trouble out there staying calm and focused. That's part of the learning process for me. I'm learning every time out, trying to pick the brain of whoever I can so I can get better."
Riley admitted he put too much pressure on himself in what became the most anticipated big-league debut by an Orioles pitcher since Mike Mussina in 1991. So, what about pitching for the first time at Camden Yards?
"I'm going to be nervous for this game," he said. "I'll be throwing in front of 40,000 fans and it's going to be exciting. But I know now I'll be better prepared mentally."
Riley isn't shying away from the hype that's accompanied his every move since dominating at Single-A Delmarva last season. Instead, he seems to embrace it.
"It's an honor," he said.
Machemer learning, helping
Triple-A Rochester manager Dave Machemer has taken on a utility role of sorts on the Orioles' coaching staff.
"I'll help out anyway I can," he said before counting the ways. "Throwing batting practice, hitting fungoes, sitting in the dugout. And I'm absorbing and learning all the things I can at the major-league level from all the wealth of experience that's sitting on the bench. I'm keeping my ears and eyes open."
Machemer also can provide information on some of the Red Wings who have been added to the roster, a useful resource for Miller.
"Ray will ask me questions about some of the players I had, whether it's [Eugene] Kingsale or [Calvin] Pickering or Jerry [Hairston] or [Jesse] Garcia, any of those guys. If I can give him any insight into what I saw that will help Ray understand them better, I'll do it," Machemer said.
It's uncertain whether Machemer will return as Rochester manager next season after his club posted a 61-83 record. He's expected to remain in the organization, but perhaps with different responsibilities.
"I wish I knew that, but I don't know right now," he said. "It's kind of up in the air right now. I'm sure when the big-league season is over and they sit down and evaluate all the people in the minor leagues, they'll make their decision."
Machemer had to deal with the usual challenges that confront a Triple-A manager, including the loss of key players such as starter Jason Johnson and closer Gabe Molina to promotions. There also were an assortment of injuries -- most notably to Garcia, Pickering and left-hander Terry Burrows -- and a lack of production in the outfield, where the starting trio of Ricky Otero, Lyle Mouton and Mike Murphy didn't make it through the season. Mouton was traded, and Otero and Murphy were released.
"At the minor-league level, especially at Triple-A, the manager is evaluated on the wins and losses," Machemer said. "I feel we made some good progress with some people. I feel the guys who have come to Baltimore have played well and I think they've progressed in their careers. They've learned a lot playing for me, and hopefully that will be taken into account."
General manager Frank Wren said no decision would be made for at least another month.
"From my standpoint, Dave did a fine job," Wren said. "He accomplished what we wanted with the young players, which is evident by the way they're playing here."
No spoilers here
Though the remaining schedule has given the Orioles a chance to play spoilers, with 14 of the final 17 games against teams vying for the postseason, Miller doesn't view his club in that light.
"I don't look at it that way," he said. "No matter who we're playing, we want to win. We try to do the best we can every day."
To that end, Miller is reluctant to play too many of his minor-league call-ups down the stretch. "You don't want to expose too many kids to contending teams," he said, "because the other teams will complain about it."
Pub Date: 9/15/99