MINNEAPOLIS - As the clubhouse doors swung open yesterday, allowing more room for the Orioles' roster to expand, one player was conspicuous by his absence.
No longer able to compensate for the pain in his hip, Albert Belle took a flight to Baltimore in the afternoon and will undergo an examination today. It remains uncertain when he'll return to the team or how many games he'll miss.
Brady Anderson continues to fill in as the right fielder, with Cal Ripken serving as the designated hitter until ready to test his lower back at third base. Other injuries have meant starts in center field for Eugene Kingsale and at shortstop for Mark Lewis.
Mike Mussina has been hampered by his own health issues, leaving his past four starts because of the flu, a callus on his thumb and tightness in his groin. Last night, he had to contend with a calf muscle that he strained while shagging flies after his previous outing.
Unable to lament a shortage of runs, Mussina found it difficult to protect a 6-0 lead that took only three innings to create. He gave up 10 hits and threw 109 pitches, but still improved to 16-2 lifetime against the Twins, including a one-hitter the last time he faced them.
The calf injury "bothered him right at the end of his warm-up today," said manager Mike Hargrove. "He said it didn't really bother him when he pitched, but I think that was just a competitor talking. It limited him some and may have been the cause of him not being able to make his pitches when he needed to.
"But he said it didn't get any worse and he didn't have to alter his delivery, like he did because of his groin. I don't think it'll factor into his next start."
The Orioles (63-75) remained tight-lipped about Belle's condition. Trainer Richie Bancells declined comment, and information provided by Hargrove was scarce. Syd Thrift, the club's vice president of baseball operations, characterized the injury as a strain and indicated that more than one doctor would be involved.
"It's the right hip, which he's had for a while," Hargrove said. "He's been doing stretching exercises to compensate for it. We thought it was getting a little better, but in the last four or five days it's gotten worse. I'd assume once the doctor makes a diagnosis that he'll talk to Richie Bancells and Syd, and we'll know more."
Belle is among only four players to accumulate 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in eight consecutive seasons. With 22 homers and 97 RBIs this season, the streak has been put in serious jeopardy.
The Orioles extended one last night, improving to 4-0 without Belle in the lineup since he signed as a free agent before the 1999 season. That includes the only game he missed last season, a 6-2 victory in Atlanta when Belle was benched after engaging in a shouting match with former manager Ray Miller in the visitors' dugout at Pro Player Stadium.
Catcher Brook Fordyce was relieved to have his own streak end. Twenty-six consecutive runners had stolen against him until he threw out Brian Buchanan in the second inning. He became 2-for-31 when Cristian Guzman swiped second base in the third inning and advanced on Fordyce's throwing error.
Buchanan had one of the hits off Mussina (9-13), who is 2-0 in four starts since Aug. 16. The Twins collected four of them in the third inning, when they scored three times. Mussina also hit a batter and received a visit from pitching coach Sammy Ellis before returning to the dugout with a 6-3 lead.
Mussina, who has more victories against the Twins than any other opponent, allowed one earned run in his last 25 innings before they reached him in the third. A leadoff double by Torii Hunter in the fourth touched off another rally, which culminated with a two-out single by Guzman that reduced the Orioles' lead to 6-4.
Chuck McElroy entered in the seventh and loaded the bases before Mike Trombley, fresh off his 3 1/3 innings in Cleveland on Sunday, struck out Hunter.
"For not walking anybody, I sure thought I was all over the place," Mussina said. "I hit a guy on a pitch that was about two feet inside. I had balls in the dirt most of the night. I beat up on Fordyce the whole time. Knocked his mask off once, caught him in the chin once. He picked one that would have hit the umpire clean in the mask."
Mussina most likely has five starts remaining this season, and perhaps as an Oriole. "I'm just trying to get deep in the game, pitch effectively, stay healthy," he said. "When you get to this point in the season and we're in the situation we're in, as far as being well out of it, you're concerned about being healthy and being out there and doing your job and finish up strong."
Buddy Groom got through the eighth in rapid fashion, and rookie Ryan Kohlmeier picked up his 10th save in as many tries after permitting a run on doubles by Matt Lawton and David Ortiz.
Fordyce bailed him out by cutting down Jay Canizaro at third as the Twins' pinch-runner tried to advance on a pitch that had rolled a few feet behind the plate. The next batter, Denny Hocking, singled to right for what should have been the tying run.
The Orioles sent eight men to the plate against J.C. Romero in the first inning while taking a 3-0 lead. Anderson and Jerry Hairston had already batted three times by the third.
Anderson led off with a single and scored on a one-out double by Delino DeShields, who left the game while the Twins were batting in the seventh because of an illness.
A walk to Jeff Conine was followed by a run-scoring double by Ripken, giving him four RBIs in four games since coming off the disabled list. Fordyce brought in another run with a single into center field.
Ripken pushed his recovery a little further with five plate appearances, a dive into third base on an attempted pick-off and a slide into home. "All those are little tests. I felt good as the game went along. Everything seems normal, and normal is good," he said.
The Orioles scored three more in the third, again sending eight batters to the plate and hustling Romero to the showers. Chris Richard, Mark Lewis and Kingsale drove in the runs.
Johan Santana stifled the Orioles after replacing Romero, permitting only one hit in 3 1/3 innings. A leadoff single by Conine in the seventh brought Hector Carrasco into the game to face Ripken, who collected his 3,000th hit off the Twins reliever on April 15. This time, Ripken bounced to third.
Opponent: Minnesota Twins
Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis
Time: 1:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: No TV/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Orioles' Sidney Ponson (7-10, 5.33) vs. Twins' Brad Radke (10-14, 4.53)