When last we checked in on the Cal Ripken milestone march, it was early August and Ripken's back had just landed him on the disabled list for a second time, temporarily halting his chase for 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. Tonight, Ripken returned to the Baltimore Orioles' lineup, but the milestone march remained stuck on 399 and 2,968.

In his first game since July 31, Ripken went hitless in three at-bats and made one difficult play at third base in the Orioles' 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in front of a reverent crowd of 37,009 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"It feels great to be back in there," Ripken said after the game. "Physically, everything's cool."

Ripken did manage to climb up one all-time list, albeit a dubious one. He grounded into two double plays tonight, the 321st and 322nd of his career, which trails all-time leader Hank Aaron by six. Ripken struck out in his other at-bat, before leaving the game after the seventh inning.

"After he got his third at-bat, it was a good time to take a little pressure off him," Manager Ray Miller said. "He'll be in there tomorrow. Everything went fine. I know he wanted to get some hits, but he said he felt pretty good at the plate."

Orioles slugger Albert Belle went 2 for 3, smashed his 30th homer of the season, off Tampa Bay debutant Dan Wheeler (0-1) in the fourth, singled and scored in the seventh, stole a base, and made a nifty catch at the wall in right on a drive by Jose Canseco in the sixth, as the Orioles won for the just second time in seven games.

In his second start of the season, Orioles left-hander Doug Johns (4-2) tossed 6 2/3 innings of four-hit ball without allowing a walk. Johns, changing speeds effectively and mixing in a dazzling sinker with his fastball-curve-change repertoire, completed three innings in six pitches or fewer and struck out four.

"I'm going to continue to start him," Miller said. "I was extremely impressed with the way he handled the middle of the lineup. [Numbers] three, four, five and six didn't have a hit."

Still, the biggest cheers of the night were for Ripken, who has spent 54 days on the disabled list this season -- or 54 more than he spent in the first 18 years of his career.

"It feels like my third Opening Day of the year," he said before the game.

If there were any questions about Ripken's ability to handle tough chances, they were answered in the bottom of the fifth. With a runner on first and two outs and the Orioles leading 2-0, Fred McGriff hit a slow roller to third. Ripken charged, bent over, made a barehanded grab and threw out McGriff on the run.

Ripken's hitting stroke might take longer to return. The last time he came off the disabled list, on May 13, he spent two days on a minor league rehabilitation assignment first. "He still has to get his timing down," Miller said. "Cal will be fine. Just give him a couple of days."

Trying to balance proper caution with a desire to help Ripken reach both career milestones, Miller said he will play Ripken every day, assuming he stays healthy, with the exception of an occasional day off when a day game follows a night game.

Miller also said he might move Ripken higher in the batting order, to second or third, in hopes of gaining a few extra at-bats for him. "If he gets rolling and swinging the bat well," Miller said, "we might do it."

To get to 3,000 hits by the end of the season, Ripken needs to average 1.07 hits per game over the next 30 games -- which is exactly his career average. This season, he has averaged 1.29 hits per game.

And if Ripken doesn't reach it this year, there is always next year. Although Ripken admitted he would consider surgery in the offseason "as a last resort" if the back continues to be a problem, he added, "It has never gotten to that point yet, and there's no reason to believe it's going to."

Earlier this season, the Orioles picked up the option on Ripken's contract for another $6.3 million in 2000. But they have made no guarantees where he will play. Third base prospect Ryan Minor is getting a good look the last two months of this season, and if Brady Anderson is moved to left, B.J. Surhoff could be a candidate to play third, with Ripken in a first base-designated hitter role.

"We don't know if Cal physically will be able to be an every-single-day player" next year, Miller said. "That's yet to be seen, depending on what happens with his back. You can't really project that."