TORONTO -- When Mike Hargrove penciled in Cal Ripken as last night's designated hitter, he virtually confirmed that Harold Baines' status is now as a platoon player.
Baines, 41, who last season batted .302 with three home runs and 17 RBIs in 53 at-bats against left-handers, is hitless in seven at-bats against them this season and apparently will not receive additional time despite the absence of first baseman Will Clark (hamstring).
Hargrove has used the designated hitter's role to freshen position players such as Albert Belle, Jeff Conine and Brady Anderson. Last night marked the 10th game in which the Orioles have faced a left-handed starting pitcher and Baines has faced two of them, none since April 14.
While stopping short of classifying the arrangment as "a pure platoon," Hargrove acknowledged that he usually pursues conventional matchups with the role. Just as Baines will see almost every right-handed starter to face the Orioles, a right-handed bat will usually see left-handed pitching.
"I don't know if it's a slam-dunk platoon, but with the guys we have, when Will is healthy, that's what we have," said Hargrove. "Given the fact we have guys who are productive and who need at-bats, that makes the designated hitter position a position that will change. [But] I wouldn't go so far as to call it a pure platoon."
Yesterday's move wasn't motivated entirely to keep Ripken in the lineup. Baines suffers from arthritic knees that are especially painful on artificial turf.
Noting that Baines labored noticeably on grass in New York last weekend, Hargrove thought it prudent to rest him last night and probably tonight against Jays left-hander Lance Painter.
Baines is riding a six-game hitting streak in which he is 8-for-22 with two extra-base hits and five RBIs. He is also in a friendly duel with Ripken for the RBI lead among active players. With two last night, Ripken leads Baines for 25th on the ail-time list, 1,593-1,591.
Cruising with Mercedes
Monday night's line suggested Jose Mercedes' 32/3-inning score-less appearance was an unqualified success. He held the Blue Jays at six runs while the Orioles rallied from a 6-2 deficit to 6-5 and stood to benefit for his third win had the Orioles stranded fewer than 13 base runners.
However, his appearing for the first time since his last start, April 27 in Chicago, proved disconcerting.
"I want to be comfortable for myself; I also want to do what's best for the team," said Mercedes, who won two of four starts before being bumped from the rotation to make room for Scott Erickson. "It's OK if I pitch every two, three or four days. But when I pitch every six, seven, 10 or 11 days, that makes it very tough to be comfortable."
Mercedes has become the Orioles' long man since the release of Tim Worrell. The job is often thankless and can lead to long stretches of inactivity. Mercedes, who last pitched out of the bullpen in 1996, also has a history of shoulder injury that complicates his ap-proach to warming up.
"It's something I've got to get used to," said Mercedes, who warmed behind Erickson, in New York last Friday but did not appear. "When you start, you have 40 or 50 pitches to get loose. It's much quicker in this situation."
The Orioles will sponsor Firefighters and Paramedics Night at Camden Yards tomorrow night as the club opens a four-game home-stand against the Boston Red Sox.
The club will donate $5 from each ticket sold to the Fallen Fire-fighters Fund, with benefits going to families of six fire fighters killed while battling a blaze last Dec. 3 in Worcester, Mass. During pre-game ceremonies, eight members of the Baltimore Fire Department will re-ceive the Heroic Service Award, the department's highest honor, for their role in rescuing residents at Charles Towers on Feb. 5, 1999.
Around the horn
Conine got his 1,000th career hit in the ninth inning .... The Blue Jays have homered in a club-record 20 straight home games.