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Ripken still leans toward returning


BOSTON - Cal Ripken left Boston just as he arrived in Baltimore 10 days before: returning for the 2001 season appears more likely than not.

Ripken sat out yesterday's series finale against the Boston Red Sox as a matter of routine. Day games after night games no longer dictate Ripken's presence, especially in the final two weeks of a fourth-place season. Ripken packed a 2-for-9 series and returned home for the season's final six games, refusing to guarantee his return next year but also unaware of anything that would prevent it.

"I'd still like to see the whole season," Ripken said. "If I had to make a decision today, I'd give it a go. But I'd like to keep an open mind. I don't want to do anything that might make me take a step back."

Ripken has hit safely in eight of 15 games since coming off the disabled list Sept. 1. His .241 average since then includes five doubles, six RBIs and a season-high four hits in a Sept. 13 game against the Texas Rangers. Ripken has batted cleanup in his past seven starts but does not count a home run among 54 at-bats since returning.

"When I first came back, I felt really good. I was sharp early," Ripken said. "But there have been times since when my timing has been off. At times, I've felt a little jumpy."

Ripken hasn't set a date for announcing his decision but plans to meet with club officials soon after the season. To date, Ripken has not discussed his situation with majority owner Peter Angelos. He and representatives Ron Shapiro and Ira Rainess met with Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift last month, but discussions focused primarily on Ripken's health.

Vote of confidence

Mike Hargrove didn't think twice about bringing rookie closer Ryan Kohlmeier into yesterday's game to protect a 1-0 lead in the ninth inning. The night before, Kohlmeier had fumbled a 7-6 lead in the 10th inning of what became an 8-7 loss. Closers are supposed to have short memories. And in this case, Kohlmeier's manager did, too.

"If I don't go back to Ryan in that situation today, all I'm telling him is I don't have confidence in his ability to close close ballgames," Hargrove said. "And that's certainly not a message I want to send because I do have confidence in his ability to do it."

Hargrove was rewarded with Kohlmeier's 12th save - but just barely.

For the second time in as many days, Kohlmeier walked the leadoff hitter in the ninth inning. Saturday, Red Sox cleanup hitter Nomar Garciaparra came around to score the game-tying run. Yesterday, pinch hitter Carl Everett reached and gave way to pinch runner Bernard Gilkey, who was thrown out at home by left fielder Delino DeShields on an ill-advised tag attempt from third base. Garciaparra and Everett are the Red Sox's most potent hitters, leaving Kohlmeier to proceed with caution.

"Ryan is in the process of learning that he can't alter his game to allow leadoff walks," Hargrove said. "He has to go out and throw strikes. If it doesn't work, it doesn't work. All good closers are aggressive in the strike zone. They throw their pitches and take whatever comes."

Kohlmeier began to warm in the eighth inning, and said he never had misgivings about Hargrove's confidence in him.

"I didn't have any doubt," Kohlmeier said. "I've proven I can pitch here. I've got the job done in similar situations before. It's not always going to be a 1-2-3 inning. And sometimes they're going to get you, even though you don't like it when that happens."

Hargrove offered a winner's summation. "He got the job done. That's all that counts," he said.

Road to nowhere

The Orioles concluded one of the most frustrating road tours in franchise history with yesterday's 1-0 win. Able to take the three-game series over the Red Sox, the Orioles finished 30-51 away from Camden Yards, their worst road mark since going 20-61 in 1988. The 30 road wins are the franchise's second-fewest for a full schedule since winning 28 in 1956, when Major League Baseball still employed a 154-game schedule. A late surge was needed for the Orioles to achieve a .370 road percentage, as they split their last 34 road games. They finished 15-16 on the road after the All-Star break.

This weekend's series win was only the Orioles' seventh in 27 road series.

Problems could be attributed to a pitching staff that suffered an ERA (5.98) almost a run higher on the road than at home (5.02). Of their 24 blown saves, 20 came on the road.

Pushing for 70

Reliever Buddy Groom took another step yesterday toward achieving a little-known but significant record for middle relievers. Groom's appearance in the eighth inning was his 65th, leaving him an outside shot at becoming the first pitcher ever to make 70 appearances in five consecutive seasons. He must appear in five of the Orioles' six remaining games to do so.

"It's something we're aware of," Hargrove said. "And I think we'll try to find situations for Buddy, within reason."

"It's something you'd like to get," said Groom, 6-3 with four saves and a 4.95 ERA distorted because of several recent rough outings. "But it's more important to pitch well, and I have pitched well this season."

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