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Clark comes out of blocks hitting, as he always does; Opening Day streak grows to 14 with single; Garcia feels at home this time; Orioles' Opening Day

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Will Clark's single leading off the fourth inning yesterday continued a tradition of sorts on Opening Day. Clark has gotten a hit during his first game in 14 seasons, the exception being when he was on the disabled list in 1997.

Don't think he's not aware of it, either. It's become a source of pride to the Orioles' first baseman, an indication that he's up to any challenge, in any ballpark, at any age. The pitchers change, but not the result.

"I'm very proud of that," he said after the Orioles' 4-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians at Camden Yards. "Every year when you start off a season, you're facing somebody's ace, and you find a way to get a base hit."

Clark's single yesterday, to right field, came off the Indians' Bartolo Colon. Clark, who carries a .393 average (22-for-56) in openers, also milked him for a walk in the second inning, and reached in the same manner against former Oriole Scott Kamieniecki to begin the seventh.

His collection of Opening Day knocks began in 1986 after he made the jump to the majors from Single-A Fresno, where he appeared in only 65 games the previous year. The opposing pitcher was future Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan. The outcome was a home run that stamped Clark's arrival.

It also started a trend.

New season, new feeling

For infielder Jesus Garcia, Opening Day unfolded in the same place as last season, but with a much different feel.

This time, he didn't feel as though he was on loan from Triple-A Rochester. He wasn't on the club only because of an injury. He wasn't looking over his shoulder, waiting to be pulled back to the minors.

Garcia went into spring training as the favorite to replace Jeff Reboulet as the utility infielder, and emerged victorious by hitting .326 with nine RBIs. Rochester seems much farther away.

"Last year I was just happy to be here," said Garcia, who had a roster spot then because Delino DeShields was on the disabled list.

"The atmosphere on Opening Day was really great. It's like a kid in a candy store, just watching everything that goes on around you. You're in awe of everything. As far as this year, I know how everything goes now, but it's still exciting. It's great to be back."

But how long will he stay?

Garcia could be replaced at some point by veteran David Howard. The Orioles signed Howard to a minor-league contract on March 30 and assigned him to Rochester. If Garcia, who led the club with five errors this spring, can't find enough opportunities in the coming months, he could be sent down where regular playing time awaits.

"I'm not going to worry about that," Garcia said. "I showed them I can handle all three positions, so we'll just see what happens."

Indians' reunion

The guest list for yesterday's reunion with the Indians wasn't limited to Mike Hargrove. He brought along two of his coaches, Brian Graham and Jeff Newman, who also had lengthy ties to Cleveland's organization -- and their own emotions when looking across the field.

"After spending 14 years somewhere, you have strong feelings," said Graham, who compiled a 709-491 record as a minor-league manager, finishing first or second eight times in nine seasons.

"I care about the Cleveland Indians. I care about the players. The human side of it is you don't stop caring about your friends over there and the organization and the people in the front office. But I'm in a Baltimore Orioles uniform and I hope we win every game."

Graham, who watched the game from former general manager Frank Wren's private box as the offensive/defensive coordinator, denied there was any bitterness toward the Indians after Hargrove's firing.

"There's not an unpleasant aftertaste," he said. "You have a competitive nature because it's the line of work I'm in and it makes you feel a little uncomfortable, but it's not unpleasant."

Kamieniecki returns

Kamieniecki made his first stop at Camden Yards since signing with the Indians as a free agent in early December. Replacing starter Colon in the sixth, Kamieniecki didn't allow a run in 1 1/3 innings, though he gave up a walk and a hit in the seventh before leaving with one out.

He's got the security of a two-year deal, with a club option for 2002. He's also got some regrets.

"I'm disappointed that I didn't win as many games here as I would have liked," said Kamieniecki, who went 14-16 in three seasons with the Orioles. "They counted on me to pitch better the last couple of years, but because of the injuries it didn't pan out. But I met a lot of guys and the city was great to me. I'm really more disappointed that we didn't win."

Kamieniecki said he wanted to stay with the Orioles, but wasn't offered more than a one-year contract. He received a better deal with the Indians, and a better chance to pitch in the World Series.

"The ball was in their court. They had the option of bringing me back, but it was a business decision and I respect that. It's part of baseball," he said.

"I'm over the initial disappointment because I'm with a great club. A lot of guys in my position have to settle for the best offer. I was lucky enough to be able to choose and come here. I can't complain."

Rising Towers

Right-hander Josh Towers will be the starting pitcher when Rochester opens its season in Scranton on Thursday. Jason Johnson, who was sent down after a miserable spring that cost him a spot in the Orioles' rotation, is expected to start the following night.

Towers, 23, who also beat out left-hander Matt Riley for the opening assignment, is being rewarded by manager Marv Foley for his usual impeccable control. Towers walked 26 and struck out 106 in 189 innings at Double-A Bowie last season, and the plate hardly moved while he threw in the minor-league camp this spring.

"I asked Marv why [Towers] was starting and he said Josh performed the best of everyone in spring training," said Syd Thrift, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operation.

In four minor-league seasons, Towers has walked 64 and struck out 376. He's 32-18 with a 3.91 ERA.

"He's going to pitch and pitch, and the next thing you know he's going to be here and people are going to say, 'Look at this guy.' Then they're going to call him an overachiever," Thrift said.

"An overachiever is a person who's gone beyond everybody's expectations but his own."

Rochester's outfield for the opener is expected to include Jose Herrera in left field, Luis Matos in center and Wady Almonte in right. Matos will be filling in for Eugene Kingsale, who went on the disabled list with a strained quadriceps muscle.

Veteran outfielders Wayne Kirby and Derrick May also are on the roster, but Thrift said, "We're in player development."

Around the horn

Kenny Lofton's home run was his first at Oriole Park. Mike Mussina's sixth Opening Day start tied Jim Palmer for most in Orioles history.

Breakdown

Orioles' record: 0-1 Extra innings: 0-0

At home: 0-1 Series wins: 0

On road: 0-0 Series losses: 0

On grass: 0-1 Series splits: 0

On turf: 0-0 Series sweeps: 0

Day games: 0-1 Vs. AL East: 0-0

Night games: 0-0 Vs. AL Central: 0-1

One-run games: 0-0 Vs. AL West: 0-0

Two-run games: 0-0 Vs. NL: 0-0

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