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At last, milestone is hit ; Ripken ends chase on 3-hit night with single in 7th inning; His feat is 23rd in history 6-4 win over Twins makes O's day perfect

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MINNEAPOLIS -- The moment arrived last night shortly after 8 local time. Cal Ripken, put on hold for much of a year by age, a back that threatened his career and personal challenges that strengthened his core, unleashed a seventh-inning swing that confirmed what his will made inevitable.

On the second pitch of the fourth at-bat of his 2,800th major-league game, Ripken lined a single into center field, earning a moment that had teased him for almost a year. He became just the 23rd player in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits and only the seventh to also have 400 homers.

His hair is a little thinner, his gait noticeably heavier. But in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career, Ripken reached the milestone with characteristic force, singling three times for his first multi-hit game of the season.

The game ended 6-4, the Orioles' way, ending their four-game losing streak. For the first time in a week, the bullpen didn't buckle.

Ripken stepped into the box at 8: 05 p.m. to be greeted by Hector Carrasco, a pitcher whose career may have received its definition with what he surrendered. Ripken watched the first pitch sail high and over the head of catcher Matt LeCroy, allowing Albert Belle to score a go-ahead run from third base.

A minute later, Ripken re-entered the box, the Metrodome crowd breaking into a cheer, then falling silent, so silent that the crack of Ripken's bat rang out as his slicing line drive cleared the infield.

"It seemed like it was in slow motion," Ripken said. "I knew it was going to be a hit."

For a moment, he stood at first base, bathed in applause while greeted by base coach Eddie Murray -- his friend, former teammate and, now, a fellow member of the elite club.

"It was special and the first face I see is Eddie's friendly face," Ripken said. "It was really a nice moment. To shake hands and say a few words. It was nice, very nice."

Then the Orioles' dugout and bullpen emptied, engulfing Ripken with handshakes, hugs and well-intended jabs to the chest. His closest friend on the team, Brady Anderson, approached and wrapped an arm over his right shoulder. Ripken smiled the smile of a proud man, but also of a relieved man.

Ripken spoke of his "horrible" spring training in which he never homered and rarely felt comfortable with a squatty stance that compensated for residual back stiffness.

"Even when I started the season, I didn't feel what I wanted to feel swinging the bat," he said. "The pressure of me getting hits weighed on me a little bit."

Each team member left with his own impression yesterday. Manager Mike Hargrove treated it as a moment within an undecided game, then withdrew.

"That's Cal's moment," he said. "I don't know if there is anything you can say. I'm sure he had a lot of things going through his head at that time. You say congratulations, give him a hard squeeze of the hand and save all the pleasantries for later."

Before Ripken left the bench, Anderson looked everywhere except at his friend. "I looked to see what time it was," Anderson said. "I wanted to remember who was pitching and what the score was. Just in case somebody asked."

Ripken became only the seventh player in history to reach both 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. Murray was the last to join that club, also.

Ripken's 3,000-hit ball was retrieved, rolled into the dugout, then brought by Will Clark to its owner at first base. At 8: 07, Ripken walked toward the visitors' dugout, reached up into the stands and found a blonde woman in peach and handed the keepsake to his wife, Kelly.

"Would you hold this for me, please?" he asked, and reached for her free hand.

His teammates retreated, leaving Ripken to wave his helmet at a crowd that refused to sit. At 8: 08, Jeff Conine tried to follow the act. Impossible.

"Pretty neat," said Conine, a witness to George Brett's 3,000th hit with the Kansas City Royals in 1992.

Ripken had jammed a Sean Bergman waist-high fastball to right field for No. 2,998 in the fourth inning, then returned the next inning to chop a one-hop grounder to third baseman Corey Koskie.

Koskie did not make a play on Ripken, instead watching as the Iron Man sprinted across the bag with his first multi-hit game of the season.

"I blooped one in," Ripken said. "I fought off a tough pitch. Then, I hit one six stories high. Even I could beat that out. That took a little pressure off. That was the kind of hit to get you out of a slump."

Both balls were retrieved and rolled into the Orioles' dugout. After the fourth-inning hit, Ripken stood at first base and shared a laugh with Murray.

The dirty work was over. Ripken had slogged through 11 games, enduring occasional tightness in his surgically repaired back and frequent frustration with a swing that varies between 78 and 33 rpm.

He had answered the predictable questions with patience and even humor, wondering if an official scorer's call could help him extricate himself from a nagging slump. He went 2-for-12 in Kansas City and 1-for-4 Friday night before settling into the box with a .176 average.

The rivets show more now. Never an effortless runner, Ripken now must grind. However, his infield single stirred the crowd of 18,745 the moment it left his bat.

Ripken returned for his first shot at 3,000 at 8 p.m., but was made to wait by Twins manager Tom Kelly's predictable move to the bullpen. Carrasco replaced left-handed reliever Travis Miller with two outs and Belle on third base as the go-ahead run.

The drama took five minutes to begin, only a moment to culminate. For a long moment, Ripken's struggle to get here was forgotten. He laughed and took a jab to the left chest from Terry Crowley, the only man aside from his father, Cal Sr., he has ever completely trusted with his swing.

"I think it gives him his due as a hitter," said Crowley. "When you think of Ripken, you think of The Streak, you think of the MVPs, you think of the World Series."

"To be part of history is very special. To also win the game, that's even more special," said designated hitter Harold Baines, himself 207 hits short of the milestone. "He's played the game a long time; he's very deserving."

Known mostly for its bad baseball and poor attendance, the Metrodome also made history because of Ripken. Dave Winfield and Murray reached 3,000 hits here and Ripken made the facility the first to welcome three players into the club.

Hargrove was asked before the game if he would rest Ripken on the final game of a six-game road trip if he reached the threshold of the milestone. He would not give a firm answer.

Now he won't have to. For one of the few times in his career, Ripken wrote a significant line on his resume away from Memorial Stadium or Camden Yards. The Streak, his 400th home run, the September night Ripken decided to sit down -- all were celebrated before his Baltimore family. He said he "absolutely" would have preferred to have had the moment at Camden.

"I'm from Baltimore. I always wanted to be an Oriole," he said. "It was very special to stand in Memorial Stadium in the same spot as Brooks Robinson stood. Obviously, it would have been a thrilling sensation to do it in Baltimore, but there's also an obligation to the game."

With Ripken poised to make history, the Orioles bullpen's nightly drama was for once overshadowed. Starter Calvin Maduro handed off a 4-4 game after five innings, then watched as a string of relievers attempted to reverse a weeklong skid that left the bullpen with a 7.33 ERA and four blown saves in five opportunities.

Any other night, the seamless performance given by Tim Worrell, B. J. Ryan and Mike Trombley would have screamed for attention. This time, they merely closed a game made significant two innings earlier.

Orioles today

Opponent: Minnesota Twins

Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis

Time: 2: 05 p.m.

TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: O's Sidney Ponson (0-0, 5.54) vs. Twins' Joe Mays (0-1, 13.50)

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