As the Baltimore Orioles took the field tonight, Cal Ripken was somewhere over the Midwest, taking with him whatever good karma was left in this lost season. While the Orioles continue to find nothing but defeat on the West Coast, that little bit of good karma will hinge on what transpires in a doctor's office Tuesday morning.
With Ripken back in Baltimore to have his stiff back examined, the Orioles were drubbed, 7-1, by the Oakland Athletics, the Orioles' sixth loss in seven games, as Scott Erickson lost for the first time in nearly two months.
"It's like the whole year," Manager Ray Miller said. "We go as our starting pitching goes. Scotty didn't have it tonight."
Although there will be no word on Ripken until after he sees team orthopedist Michael Jacobs on Tuesday morning, Ripken almost certainly will miss the last two games of this series, and the Orioles have discussed calling up Ryan Minor from Class AAA Rochester in case Ripken goes on the disabled list for the second time this season.
Ripken was scratched from Sunday's lineup in Seattle, but Miller said Ripken felt better Sunday evening. "Then when he got up this morning he was feeling it again," Miller said. "When you start feeling an electric sensation in your back, that's when things can go bad. He wanted to check it out right away and hopefully stave it off."
Ripken, who will turn 39 this month, left the team one home run shy of 400 and 32 hits shy of 3,000. But Ripken's most recent experience with back stiffness -- which forced him to go on the disabled list from April 18 to May 13 -- apparently persuaded him to take this bout seriously.
"He said, `Last time [the back] got like this, I waited too long to get it checked out,' " Miller said. "He said, `This time I want to get it checked out.' The back is such a sensitive thing."
Ripken apparently chose to fly to Baltimore to see Jacobs, instead of flying to Cleveland to see Henry Bohlman, who treated Ripken in April. However, Miller said, "Knowing Cal, he'll see them both."
Ripken is hitting .352 with 15 homers and 43 RBI in 61 games since coming off the disabled list May 13, and is coming off one of the best months of his career, hitting .413 in July.
With Ripken gone tonight, Miller was again left short-handed on his bench, leading to some creative lineup tinkering. All-star left fielder B.J. Surhoff was moved to third base, where he was a regular in 1996 but last played there in 1997. Surhoff handled four chances tonight without incident.
Jeff Conine started in left field tonight, and failed to make a diving catch on Jason Giambi's slicing liner in the fifth inning, leading to a run that increased the A's lead to 5-1.
Miller's reserves consisted of utility players Jeff Reboulet and Rich Amaral, and backup catcher Mike Figga, whose combined batting average this season is .223, with no homers and 15 RBI. The Orioles were spread so thin, ace pitcher Mike Mussina was designated the team's second reserve outfielder.
With all that in mind, perhaps it was a good thing the game was far out of hand in the late innings, so the Orioles wouldn't wind up with a disaster such as Sunday's 3-1 loss in Seattle, in which Conine wound up out of position at third base and committed a crucial error that allowed the winning run to score, costing Mussina a possible victory.
Tonight, Erickson (7-9) had his shortest outing since May 30, giving up seven earned runs in 4 2/3 innings. With a chance to even his record -- which would have been a monumental achievement considering his 1-8 start -- Erickson instead lost for the first time since June 4.
A's shortstop Miguel Tejada connected for a three-run homer off Erickson in the bottom of the second, and Matt Stairs added a solo shot in the fourth. But ultimately, Erickson's downfall came in the fifth, when five batters in a row reached base on two doubles, two singles and an intentional walk.
"I just left some balls up and they hit them," Erickson said. "It would've been tough to win no matter how I pitched today."
Only 10,178 turned out at Network Associates Coliseum as the wild-card-chasing A's sent newly acquired pitcher Kevin Appier to the mound. And Appier, who was traded to the A's from the Kansas City Royals on Saturday, shut down the Orioles.
After shortstop Mike Bordick hit a solo homer with one out in the first, Bordick's first since June 30, and Surhoff followed with a single, Appier did not allow another hit until Conine led off the eighth with a double.