Convinced after taking batting practice over the weekend that his hip could withstand the strain of playing, Albert Belle returned to the Orioles' lineup last night and assumed his role of cleanup hitter. Jose Mercedes returned to the mound and continued a second half no other pitcher in the American League can top.
Belle, playing for the first time in more than three weeks, served as the designated hitter in the Orioles' 2-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays at Camden Yards. A sparse crowd, announced at 31,614, watched him go 0-for-3.
He didn't get the ball out of the infield, grounding to short, fouling out to catcher Darrin Fletcher and striking out. The first two at-bats were extended to full counts.
Manager Mike Hargrove checked with Belle yesterday before writing in his name, which lowered players beneath him into more natural slots in the order. Able to win on Sunday with only one run, the Orioles were kept scoreless until the sixth, when Delino DeShields blooped a two-out double in front of Blue Jays left fielder Shannon Stewart that delivered Eugene Kingsale to tie the game 1-1. The inning concluded with Belle swinging through a 2-2 pitch from David Wells (20-7).
One-out singles by Melvin Mora and Chris Richard set up the go-ahead run in the seventh. Brook Fordyce flied out to right, with Mora scoring for a 2-1 lead.
Mercedes (13-7) shut out the Blue Jays after the first inning, striking another blow to their playoff chances. Buddy Groom pitched the eighth, and rookie Ryan Kohl-meier finished up for his 13th save.
Most of the pre-game attention fell upon Belle. "I talked to him today and he said he felt like he was ready to play. It's nice to have him back," Hargrove said.
"I thought he ran well and his bat looked quick. For his first time back after three weeks, I thought he did a very good job."
Inflammation of the bursa sac in his right hip forced Belle to miss 20 games, beginning Sept. 4 in Minnesota, when he approached Hargrove and asked out of the lineup. He sought treatment from the training staff before flying to Baltimore, where he was examined by team orthopedist Dr. Michael Jacobs and Dr. Charles Silberstein. Initial findings showed a degenerative condition, according to club sources, and raised speculation that Belle could be shut down the remainder of the season.
He later was examined by Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., who recommended rest and a rehabilitation program that will be carried out during the winter.
Belle took some swings in Baltimore while the Orioles were winning two of three games in Boston. It's assumed he made better contact in the cage than against Wells.
He appeared to be running more freely in the second inning while grounding out, a contrast to his labored jaunts up the line that ended with him limping to the dugout. It became a common sight with Belle hitting .215 in his last 39 games before conceding the hip no longer would allow him to play.
"I'd just like to see Albert swing the bat the way he can swing it," said Hargrove. "He's been off now a couple weeks, at least. We want to see where he's at. We want Albert to stay healthy."
And become productive again, like when he was named the American League's Player of the Month for June after batting .364 with 12 homers and 37 RBIs. He's homered only four times since June 29.
"I think it was the injury," Hargrove said. "Albert, since the first of June, went on a hot streak and then it was like somebody turned the faucet off. And shortly thereafter he started limping a little bit, especially after he'd cross the base. You'd see him slowing down and limping a little bit. It just got progressively worse, to the point that he had to take some time off."
There may not be another break until after the season, depending on how the hip responds.
"I expect him to play pretty much every day," said Hargrove. "I don't want to completely rule out him playing right field, but he'll DH for now."
The lineup needed a boost last night with the Blue Jays sending their 20-game winner to the mound.
Wells, who counts the Orioles among his former teams, reached the milestone for the first time in his last start, a 3-1 complete-game victory over the New York Yankees. That win was celebrated by a Skydome crowd that hasn't seen Wells at his best. He brought an 11-1 road record to Camden Yards last night.
The Orioles brought little patience. They swung at the first pitch in 11 of their first 18 at-bats while being limited to two singles. It wasn't until the sixth that the offense stirred, with the Orioles getting one-out singles by Kingsale and Jerry Hairston and double inside the left-field line by DeShields.
Toronto gave Wells a 1-0 lead in the first inning. Stewart and Alex Gonzalez opened with singles off Mercedes, and a one-out walk loaded the bases. Fletcher, an Orioles nemesis, lifted a sacrifice fly.
Mercedes won nine of his first 10 decisions after the break, but had lost his last two starts before facing the Blue Jays. He gave up eight earned runs in his last 11 2/3 innings, walking eight against six strikeouts.
He walked four more last night to go with five hits, but retired the last seven batters he faced.
"I knew this game would be tough because of who was pitching," said Mercedes, who's held Toronto to two earned runs in 21 1/3 innings this season. "But I always say that I'm not facing [the pitcher], I'm facing the hitter."
His 10 wins in the second half tie New York's Andy Pettitte for the most in the American League. Arbitration-eligible after the season, Mercedes apparently figures into the Orioles plans next season. He'll return as the staff's leader in victories and its only starter with a winning record.
Opponent: Toronto Blue Jays
Site: Camden Yards
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Blue Jays' Frank Castillo (9-5, 3.75) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (9-12, 4.83)