Ballplayers who appreciate the art of hitting appreciate Harold Baines. One recent afternoon in Anaheim, Calif., Angels slugger Mo Vaughn parked himself at the batting cage to watch Baines take batting practice. And Saturday night in Oakland, Cal Ripken broke into a smile when asked about Baines's timeless stroke.
Baines, 40, had just beaten the Oakland Athletics, 7-5, Saturday night with a three-run homer in the eighth inning. Ripken has been watching Baines work this sort of magic for 19 years now, as both an opponent and teammate.
"He has always been that way," Ripken said. "He's been one of the very best I've ever seen in terms of clutch hitting. When I played against him, he was one of those guys you didn't want to see at the plate in the ninth inning of a close game."
Trailing 5-0 after the third inning, the Orioles had looked moribund for the first four or five innings against A's starter Gil Heredia, while Orioles starter Jason Johnson was knocked out after three innings.
"I wasn't too happy with the first four innings," Manager Ray Miller said. "It looked like paint drying. It seemed like [Johnson] was taking an hour between pitches. I was mad enough to kill everybody."
But Orioles left-hander Doug Johns (1-1) came in, picked up the pace and threw four scoreless innings. Meanwhile, the Orioles scored one in the sixth and two in the seventh to chase Heredia.
Buddy Groom is the only left-hander in the Oakland bullpen, and Manager Art Howe used him to start the eighth. Will Clark touched him for a two-out single, and Howe turned to right-hander T.J. Mathews to face Albert Belle.
But when Belle smacked a single off Mathews, Howe had no choice but to leave in Mathews to face Baines, who now represented the go-ahead run. The result was almost predictable: Baines slammed Mathews's first pitch over the wall in left-center. Pinch hitter B.J. Surhoff followed with a solo homer, and Arthur Rhodes pitched the ninth for his second save.
"That was a hell of a comeback," Baines said. "In the first five innings, it didn't look like we'd get anything. . . . I looked [bad] my first two at bats. But every at bat is different. I just try to stay consistent."
Every homer Baines hits seems to send him past another legend on baseball's all-time list. His solo homer in today's third inning was the 359th of his career, moving him past Yogi Berra and tying him with Johnny Mize for 48th place.
"The guy," Ripken said, "can flat-out hit."
Webster to Return Soon
Catcher Lenny Webster, who has been out since May 13 with a sprained ankle, is expected to begin catching in the bullpen Monday and could be activated for this weekend's home series against Philadelphia. . . .
One day after resting Surhoff and catcher Charles Johnson, Miller gave Ripken a day off today. . . .
Although Miller was unhappy with Johnson's working pace Saturday night, other things about the 25-year-old right-hander's performance pleased the Orioles manager. Chief among them was the high, inside fastball Johnson threw to center fielder Ryan Christenson in the third inning, knocking Christenson to the ground.
"He showed me something there," Miller said. "He wasn't trying to hit anybody. But they didn't do anything the rest of the game after that. I'd like to see more of that."