MINNEAPOLIS - With the condition of his left hip becoming worse, Albert Belle was scratched from yesterday's game against the Minnesota Twins, raising the possibility that the experimental phase of the Orioles' 2000 season will include less visibility from their cleanup hitter.
The impetus for the move apparently came from Belle, the first concession he's made to the injury. With a lineup that included Jeff Conine batting fourth, the Orioles held on for a 3-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome that wasn't complete until Eugene Kingsale crashed into the fence to make a catch that left the bases loaded.
Jose Mercedes posted his eighth win in his past nine decisions, which became official with rookie Ryan Kohlmeier's ninth save in as many tries. Mark Lewis scored the go-ahead run from second base on an infield hit, and the Orioles improved to 33-7 against the Twins since 1996. Only 8,373 turned out to see it.
Matt Lawton appeared to win the game for Minnesota with a two-out drive to right-center field that Kingsale initially thought was a grand slam.
Starting for the second time since being recalled from Triple-A Rochester on Friday, he caught the ball in full stride and ran face-first into one of the posts. He crumpled to the warning track before rolling into a sitting position, the prize held firmly in his right hand and a dazed look on his face.
"I told him when we walked in, 'I had to run all the way out there; you better have blood on you for me to go that far,' " said manager Mike Hargrove. "When it was first hit, I thought he had a shot at it. Then, the longer I watched and looked at the ball and looked at him, I went from being almost sure to being amazed that he caught it."
Kingsale was part of an outfield alignment that may not include Belle for a while. Belle could return to Baltimore and be examined by team orthopedist Dr. Michael Jacobs. With only 25 games remaining, including two doubleheaders, the Orioles won't bother placing him on the disabled list.
Belle, with only four home runs since June 29, has been walking with a more pronounced limp in the past week. He winced with every step while returning to first base after an infield hit Sunday, and labored to reach second on a double the previous night.
"He's probably going to be out [today]," Hargrove said, "and when we know something more definitive. ... It doesn't do any good to sit here and speculate and say, 'How bad's his hip?' Let's just hold off on that and not speculate. It's better that way."
Belle's streak of 232 consecutive games ended Aug. 27 when Hargrove chose to rest him. He's hitting .221 (15-for-68) in his past 17 games, and .215 (34-for-158) in his past 39.
Having resisted treatment from the club's medical staff this season, Belle was seen in the trainer's room before yesterday's game. He didn't stretch with the other players on the field before batting practice. As usual, he wasn't available for to answer questions after the game.
With Cal Ripken locked in as designated hitter to spare his back from the artificial surface, Belle would have to play right field to remain in the lineup for the last two games of this series. Brady Anderson started in right yesterday, unable to remember the last time he took that position at the Metrodome.
"Maybe while I was with Boston," he said, referring to the 1988 season.
That still gave Anderson more outfield experience than Delino DeShields, who never had played left in Minnesota. Or on turf, for that matter. And Kingsale had been given only limited exposure to center field.
DeShields made it through the game without any embarrassing incidents. He charged a bloop hit in the third and alertly jumped to prevent the ball from bouncing over his head. That play came two innings after he ran down a ball in the corner and threw to Lewis, whose perfect relay nailed Cristian Guzman trying for a triple.
Showing that speed remains his greatest asset defensively, Kingsale made a running catch of Denny Hocking's drive in right-center in the fifth inning. Kingsale extended his glove as he neared the warning track, and the ball popped out of it before he gained control with his right hand.
That play couldn't rival the one he made in the ninth, after two singles and a walk had filled the bases with one out. Kohlmeier struck out Guzman before Lawton laid into a 2-2 pitch.
"I put my head down and went all out," Kingsale said. "When I made the catch, I ran right into the post. That whole, big wall and I run into the post. It felt like somebody punched me in the jaw. I was dizzy a little bit. I didn't get any hits, but I took some away."
Mercedes was removed with two outs in the seventh after allowing a single to No. 9 hitter A.J. Pierzynski.
Left-hander Buddy Groom, who was spared from pitching in Sunday's marathon, retired Hocking to preserve a 2-1 lead. Mercedes gave up seven hits - including a 412-foot home run by David Ortiz in the fourth - walked one and struck out five.
The outcome improved Mercedes' record to 11-5. Eight of his wins have come in the second half, tying Boston's Pedro Martinez for the most in the American League after the break. New York's Andy Pettitte had a chance to join them last night.
Mercedes didn't have command of his slider and his fastball stayed around 90-91 mph, but he got by. "I didn't feel great, but I went close to seven innings and gave those guys a chance to come into the game and close it out," he said. "Today was a tough day, but we got the win."
The Orioles took a 1-0 lead off rookie Mark Redman (12-8) in the fourth inning on singles by Jerry Hairston, DeShields and Ripken.
Returning to the scene of his 3,000th career hit, Ripken fought off a pitch on his fists and looped it into center field. This was the first time Ripken had played in consecutive games since coming off the disabled list. He drove in two runs on Sunday.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis
TV/Radio: Ch. 13/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Mike Mussina (8-13, 3.85) vs. Twins' J.C. Romero (2-4, 5.52)