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Uncertainty hangs over Amaral return

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Not only does Orioles outfielder Rich Amaral remain on the disabled list, four days beyond the date he was eligible to come off, but he also might not play again until after the All-Star break.

Manager Mike Hargrove left open that possibility yesterday after giving rookie Luis Matos his first start in right field, with Albert Belle serving as the designated hitter against Toronto Blue Jays left-hander David Wells.

The strained left-calf muscle has improved enough to allow Amaral to run in the outfield before games, but the Orioles are taking a cautious approach while also using the time to get an extended look at Matos, 21, who has developed into one of the farm system's better prospects and represents the shift to youth and speed that the organization is seeking.

"There's a lot of improvement, but we're still looking at two, three, five days, or maybe the All-Star break. I don't know. We'll see," Hargrove said.

"Calves and rib cages are tricky and you certainly don't want to rush those things."

Amaral went on the disabled list retroactive to June 15 after injuring the leg during a game against the Texas Rangers. He didn't begin jogging until last week's series in Boston.

Matos got his first major-league hit yesterday when he reached on a grounder that Toronto shortstop Chris Woodward backhanded before throwing late to second. He also doubled off the scoreboard in right, going 2-for-3 after being hitless in his first 15 at-bats. Harold Baines pinch-hit for him in the ninth and struck out.

"The second [hit] is easier because you feel more comfortable," Matos said. "You don't have that pressure of not having a hit."

Matos had made four starts in center field before shifting to right, where he bobbled a run-scoring single by Carlos Delgado in the first inning before throwing out Raul Mondesi trying to advance to third. He also ran down balls near the line, in shallow right and on the warning track, each time bringing a loud ovation from the crowd.

"I like his defense. He can play defense with anybody in the outfield from what I've seen so far," Hargrove said. "He's a young kid who you have to give a chance to play."

Meanwhile, Ryan Minor missed his third straight game with soreness in his left side. He apparently pulled a muscle while swinging the bat and was scratched from Saturday's game.

"There's a little more improvement today, but he still feels the ribcage a little bit," Hargrove said.

Hargrove also gave Delino DeShields the day off as the Orioles' second baseman deals with neck stiffness. DeShields had started the previous three games, but yesterday represented a good time to sit with a left-hander on the mound. He was replaced by Mark Lewis.

Barely a pause

Catcher Charles Johnson was back in the lineup yesterday, resuming his assault on American League pitching after taking Sunday off. It was Johnson's 63rd start. How many more will come?

Johnson continues to be the subject of trade speculation, with the St. Louis Cardinals known to be interested in the four-time Gold Glove winner. Having twice gone to arbitration in his two seasons in Baltimore, Johnson can become a free agent later this year. An unwillingness to hand out a five-year contract, and a rift with his agent, Scott Boras, could push the Orioles into making a trade.

This is how Johnson deals with the uncertainty over his future: By trying his hardest to tune out the rumors."

"I'm usually able to tune it out, but at the same time I hear about it just like everybody else hears about it," he said."

"I think we all understand that once it's time to play, you play. To me, it seems like a lot of times the people outside the game talk about it a lot, like your family.

"A lot of times the players don't hear about it because we're playing every day, until everybody outside of baseball brings it to our attention.

"But rumors are rumors and a lot of times they never get resolved. And after my first trade from the Marlins to the Dodgers, I'm like, whatever happens, happens."

He's obviously not letting it affect his play. Johnson began yesterday hitting .432 with six homers and 13 RBIs in his last 11 games, and .363 with 12 homers in his last 30 games. He didn't break stride, going 3-for-4 with another homer, his 19th, and missing by a triple of hitting for the cycle.

"I'm trying to not let it bother me. I'm just trying to go out and play," he said.

"I enjoy playing here and I'll enjoy it as long as I'm able to."

It's up to Torre

Has Johnson done enough to represent the American League in the All-Star Game?

Texas' Ivan Rodriguez, having another MVP-caliber season, will be voted in again, leaving Johnson's fate in the hands of New York Yankees manager Joe Torre. That could get complicated, with Torre likely to select his own catcher, Jorge Posada, as a reserve on Wednesday. Posada began yesterday batting .314.

Johnson, who's batting .311 with 19 homers and 44 RBIs, must hope that Torre carries three catchers. Last season, Torre took Detroit's Brad Ausmus as the only reserve behind Rodriguez, while the National League's roster included three catchers.

"The last couple of days, it's been mentioned to me, but I haven't thought much about it," said Johnson, who played in the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland because of an injury to Todd Hundley.

"Making it is a great accomplishment. We'd all like to play. But I'm not really worried about it. I've seen guys have great years and not make it."

Hargrove said he won't campaign on Johnson's behalf unless Torre calls him. Contact between the two managers won't be difficult, since the Orioles begin a three-game series in the Bronx tonight.

"Joe's got all the stats and he's got the names. That's his job. I certainly think Charles deserves to be on the All-Star team. How that sets up as far as the people that Joe's looking at taking, I don't know. But Joe will give it a lot of consideration."

Torre isn't obligated to select another Oriole if Cal Ripken can't play because of inflammation in his back that forced him on the disabled list. Ripken still is considered the team's representative since he placed first in the balloting.

Around the horn

Jason Johnson has given up two grand slams to Toronto this season. ... Blue Jays third baseman Tony Batista hit three home runs in the series. He has an eight-game hitting streak.

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