Injured hip keeps Belle on bench


ANAHEIM, Calif. - Officially, right fielder Albert Belle's availability is described by the Orioles as "day-to-day."

Unofficially, his absence could stretch much longer as vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift confirmed yesterday that the injured slugger won't play at least until tomorrow in Texas while others believe the wait could be even longer.

Thrift declined to address growing speculation that Belle might be suffering from a degenerative rather than an episodic condition. Thrift confirmed Belle underwent a magnetic resonance imaging in Baltimore last Wednesday but said he was not familiar with the player's medical report and did not expect additional information before tomorrow.

"It's inflammation. We'll give it rest. It's day-to-day," Thrift said before last night's 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Angels, the sixth consecutive game Belle has missed.

Club sources believe it could be more than coincidence that Belle's production slipped dramatically after hitting 12 home runs with 37 RBIs in June. The RBIs were an Orioles record for any month and earned him recognition as American League Player of the Month.

A hard slide early in July might have begun a deterioration that led Belle to ask out of the lineup last Tuesday in Minnesota after enduring a frustrating stretch in which he hit four home runs in 57 games and batted .215 in his last 39 games.

Belle rejoined the team after being examined by Orioles orthopedics last Wednesday. The club has resisted disclosing specifics of the exam, and Thrift reiterated yesterday that he was uncomfortable with team trainers explaining the situation.

"How could they have seen the reports when I haven't seen the reports?" said Thrift, who would not confirm that Belle received a cortisone injection last week.

Thrift said he plans to bypass Texas and return to Baltimore tomorrow.. It is unknown whether the club will elaborate on its account then.

Mike Hargrove omitted Belle's name from Friday's lineup card but included it Saturday and last night. Belle left Edison International Field in the second inning of Friday's game.

Hargrove has followed Thrift's lead and declined to address specifics of Belle's condition except to say he is not available to play. Hargrove, however, did confirm yesterday that his status is more an "organizational" matter than a managerial one.

The Orioles have consistently been coy about injuries in recent years, opting to list symptoms rather than conditions. An example was pitcher Scott Erickson's "elbow inflammation," which was a manifestation of a stretched elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery. Belle's hip inflammation is also symptomatic, but the team remains closed-mouthed.

A September dilemma

Hargrove finds himself confronting a familiar predicament for a manager of a non-contending team: how many call-ups to play at once against contending teams?

Last night's lineup included Eugene Kingsale in center field, Chris Richard at first base and Jerry Hairston at second base. It did not include Ryan Minor or Jesus Garcia on the left side of the infield.

Veteran infielder Mark Lewis received his 11th start in 12 games, this time at third base. Lewis has performed well since returning from the disabled list. He entered last night batting .333 with seven doubles and 10 RBIs in 19 games since his return.

Garcia has yet to appear since his Sept. 2 recall; Minor has not received an at-bat since being recalled from Rochester last Tuesday.

"No matter who we play, I don't think it's going to be easy for the other team," said Hargrove, well aware that 20 of the Orioles' last 23 games come against contending clubs.

"When you play contending teams, you want to put your best foot forward. I think you owe your team that. I think you owe baseball and your fans that. I'm sure Jesse will play. Ryan Minor will play. Ryan Minor will probably play more than Jesse."

Around the horn

Melvin Mora returned to shortstop last night for the first time since straining his left hamstring Sept. 1 in Cleveland. Hargrove said Luis Matos would return to center field tonight. Matos has not played outfield since Aug. 29 except for a pinch-running appearance because of a bruised left shoulder. ... Brady Anderson played in his 18th straight game last night since returning from a sprained wrist.

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