ARLINGTON, Texas - Four swings and no twinges in last night's 7 1/2 innings against the Texas Rangers became Cal Ripken's loudest statement of a week when much was said but little resolved about his future.
The 40-year-old third baseman's three singles, double and fourth-inning RBI couldn't touch the productivity of rookie first baseman Chris Richard, who piled on for five RBIs before the fifth inning. But Ripken's breakout on the final day of an exhausting two-week road trip suggests his bat has survived lower back pain that cost him more than one-third of the season.
Ripken and Richard propelled the Orioles' 9-4 win over the last-place Rangers at The Ballpark, giving the Orioles a 6-7 road trip and starting pitcher Pat Rapp (8-11) a win in the least impressive of his past six starts.
Richard's game was statistically significant, giving him 15 RBIs this month and building his case as a fixture on next year's team; Ripken's may have broader implications.
For the first time since embarking on a five-week tour to discover whether his lower back can carry him into a 21st season, Ripken said afterward that he has enough information for a preliminary decision.
"There are two weeks left. If I had to make a decision right now I'd say, yeah, it's a go heading into the off-season. I have something to build on," Ripken said. "I'd like to continue to play and by the end of the season, I'll have a better idea of where I am physically."
Each series on this 13-game, four-city, three-time zone road trip represented a specific hurdle for Ripken, whether returning after a 59-game layoff in Cleveland, running on artificial turf in Minnesota, enduring a lengthy flight then playing a day game after a night game in Anaheim or starting consecutive days at third base in Texas. With one "minor" exception, Ripken reported no distress.
"This was about as difficult a road trip as you could have imagined, but I'm very encouraged by how it went. I probably made a mistake in Anaheim coming back for a day game after a night game - that was a minor setback - but everything has gone well since then," said Ripken.
Last night's breakout lifted Ripken to 10-for-32 (.313) since returning from the disabled list Sept. 1. However, his presence at third base for a second consecutive night appeared to bolster him more.
"I played every minute of the first game last night and was able to come back tonight and perform. I'm really happy with how I'm feeling," he said.
Ripken stumbled cutting first base in Cleveland and jarred himself with a diving stop in Anaheim. Even last night he expressed relief at scoring from first base on a double and from second base on a single without having to slide.
"Cal's driving the ball," cited manager Mike Hargrove. "When he feels good, he plays. When he doesn't feel good, he doesn't play. But he's not out of the woods yet."
Ripken wasn't the only infielder to make a statement about his future. Since coming to the Orioles in a July 29 trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, Richard has virtually duplicated the numbers of his veteran predecessor at first base, Will Clark.
More and more, Richard suggests that he possesses enough explosiveness to man a power-intensive position. Last night marked his second game of at least five RBIs since Sept. 2. He has nine home runs and 26 RBIs in 146 American League at-bats. Clark, now thriving in the National League while the Orioles pay about $1 million of his leftover $1.8 million salary, had nine home runs and 28 RBIs in 256 at-bats with the Orioles.
Richard's rate of one RBI every 5.62 at-bats challenges Albert Belle's of one RBI every 5.52 at-bats as the team's best.
"It's all about having good at-bats," said Richard. "With men on base you like to slow the game down and stay relaxed. I haven't been doing great with that, but I feel like I'm becoming more comfortable."
Said Hargrove: "I don't want us to go overboard. But if you project his numbers over 450 at-bats, he'd have 75-80 RBI and 27-30 home runs. You can do a lot playing with numbers, but he's a better player than when he got here. He's a better all-around hitter. I've got no problem saying that."
Rangers starter Ryan Glynn (5-4) surrendered Richard's two-run, two-out double to set off a three-run first inning. Richard then scored on an error by Rangers Gold Glove first baseman Rafael Palmeiro.
Majority owner Peter Angelos attempted to defuse a smoldering flap concerning Ripken's contract status by insisting earlier this week that the future Hall of Famer would end his career in Baltimore. Ripken downplayed it as a "nothing issue" but also added that the club has yet to broach the topic. Indeed, the Orioles say they will use the rest of the season to reach their verdict. If Ripken wants to play, they will then negotiate.