- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2000

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. No one in baseball likes to make a big deal out of spring training statistics, particularly those for hitters. That's probably a good thing for Cal Ripken and Albert Belle.

The two Baltimore Orioles veterans are having sub-par springs at the plate but neither is too worried about the low numbers.

"The important thing is that you're making progress and doing things at the plate that you want to do," said Ripken. "I've had springs where I've hit .440 and ones where I've hit .200. And sometimes when I've hit .400, I've gone out and had a terrible April and times when I wasn't hitting well here, at least in terms of batting average, I've gotten off to great starts."

Belle, who got off to a slow start last season, is being closely watched. From Opening Day 1999 through June 11, he hit just .244 with 11 homers; the rest of the year he hit .327 with 27 homers. Earlier this spring, Belle claimed to be doing extra work in the batting cage in an attempt to have a better start to this season, which begins Monday.

After going 2-for-3 in yesterday's 8-2 win over a Montreal Expos split squad, Belle is hitting .262 with only two home runs. They aren't bad stats, but they aren't what Belle a career .296 hitter wanted.

"Mostly I'm happy with how things are going, but at times I've gotten frustrated," Belle said yesterday in a brief interview. "I've been impatient a lot and I haven't always waited for my pitch. I've popped a lot of balls up, like I did [Tuesday]. As long as I stay patient, I'll be much better."

Belle's performance yesterday he drove in two runs and stole two bases left him in a better frame of mind.

"Today I was very happy with my approach at the plate," he said. "I was patient and looked for pitches and was able to do the things that I want to do. I was able to drive in some runs, get on base and be dangerous. Today was a big positive."

For Ripken, progress is being measured incrementally after his September back surgery.

"Obviously, if it's just numbers you're looking at then I'm not having a good spring because my numbers just aren't that good," said Ripken whose average dropped to an anemic .148 after he went 0-for-3 yesterday. "But the spring is not just about numbers and especially this year, where every part of the spring is another step towards coming back."

Ripken said he has tried to ease himself along during spring training, which has been as much rehabilitation as it has preparation for the season.

"The first part of the spring was just about getting ready and testing things and seeing how things felt after trying to break up a double play or running out a hit to first or reaching to make a play in the field," he said. "Maybe I was walking on eggshells a little bit. But lately things have felt much better and the more comfortable I get out there, the better I feel, obviously.

"That's what you're looking for now as the season gets closer, how you feel. There's a difference in how you make an out and a lot of times you can hit the ball well and maybe not get on base. Today I lined out one time but I really felt like I made good contact and it felt better then things did earlier in the spring."

Last season, despite the back problems that sidelined him three times, Ripken hit a career-high .340 with 18 homers. He admitted that he "caught magic in a bottle" and is still "looking to recapture that magic."

Ripken, as he has throughout his 18-year major league career, is experimenting with his batting stance.

"A lot gets made about how I'm always changing my stance," he said. "But I think I've gotten to a stance that I'm comfortable with."

Like Belle, Ripken wants to get off to a quick start because it will help bring an end to another media circus. He's nine hits shy of 3,000, and he knows there will be plenty of media attention nears the milestone.

"I'd like to be able to do it at home but I don't know if six games [the length of the first homestand] is enough," he said. "But I would like to get it over with as quickly as possible."

Notes In his final start before Opening Day, Mike Mussina allowed nine hits but just two runs in six innings, his longest outing of the spring. "I just didn't feel that good today," said Mussina, who finished with a 3.42 spring ERA. "You're going to have days when you have to find ways to work through trouble any way you can do it." …

The revamped bullpen had another positive outing as Tim Worrell, Buddy Groom and Chuck McElroy worked the final three innings and allowed just one hit and no walks.

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