- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

BALTIMORE When Jeff Conine went on the disabled list with a strained right hamstring June15, the Baltimore Orioles' record stood at 31-34. When Mike Bordick went on the DL with a fractured right kneecap July16, it was 44-46.
And after they put the finishing touches on a 6-4 win over the Minnesota Twins last night (with Conine back at first base for the first time in nearly two months), the Orioles found themselves the owners of a 54-57 record, still comfortably in third place in the AL East, still three games under .500.
Have they played extremely well in the absence of their two key veteran players? Perhaps not. Have they at the very least held serve over the past seven weeks, an accomplishment in itself given their situation? Absolutely.
"Things have just kept rolling along," said Conine, who went 1-for-4 in his return to the Baltimore lineup. "Nobody hung their head and no one felt that it was a negative thing, that we were going to start losing games. We're playing with a lot of heart."
Conine's activation off the 15-day disabled list yesterday without an expected, brief rehab assignment should have an immediate impact on a club that has been hovering just below the .500 mark all season.
"Just having a guy like that in the lineup takes the pressure and the concentration off everybody else in this lineup," outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. said. "It enables us to have another threat."
Conine's return not only adds a much-needed bat and glove to Baltimore's roster, it allows manager Mike Hargrove to best utilize several other players. Jay Gibbons, who had filled in at first base in Conine's absence, was back in right field last night, while Matthews moved from right to center field, where his speed and strong arm could shine.
Considering the way Matthews has been swinging the bat lately he's hitting .359 over his last 22 games it will be hard for Hargrove to keep him out of the lineup.
"I want the opportunity to play every day," said Matthews, who became Baltimore's regular No.3 hitter when Conine went down. "They always say in this league if you hit enough, they'll find a place for you. Hopefully they'll continue to find a place for me."
If nothing else, Hargrove finally has some options when it comes to making out his lineup card, which he points out is a good problem to have. And last night, he picked the right combination of players to pull off Baltimore's second straight win over the AL Central-leading Twins.
Eight different players reached base safely, six in the first two innings alone, during which time the Orioles jumped out to a 5-0 lead against Minnesota starter Rick Reed.
Baltimore racked up six hits in a four-run second off Reed (9-6), highlighted by a two-run double by Melvin Mora, who had tripled and scored the previous inning. Luis Lopez, getting another start at shortstop one night after hitting a grand slam in the Orioles' 9-2 win, drove in another run with a double to the right-field corner. And Matthews capped the rally with an RBI single to left, one of three hits he had in the game.
Given a hefty five-run cushion, Baltimore starter Scott Erickson was free to go into cruise control. He might have been better off keeping his foot on the gas, because during a disastrous third inning the veteran right-hander appeared to be suffering from highway hypnosis.
In one inning alone, Erickson committed two errors (one throwing, one catching), threw two wild pitches and gave up three hits. The Twins scored four times to cut the Orioles' lead to one run; they may have taken the lead if Erickson (5-10) hadn't been bailed out by a 5-4-3 double play that featured a nice short-hop snag at first by Conine.
Fortunately for Baltimore, Erickson's brain freeze lasted just one inning. He came back to shut out the Twins over the next four, before handing the game over to his bullpen.
"Things kind of snowballed on him there and he got rattled a little bit," Hargrove said. "But he gathered himself and said, OK, [hes] got to do the job that he did."
Buddy Groom uncharacteristically put two runners on in the eighth, but Willis Roberts pitched out of the jam, aided by a fan interference call on a foul pop along the third-base line.
Jorge Julio threw a scoreless ninth to earn his 22nd save and secure Erickson's second win since April. The rookie closer also ensured a series victory for the Orioles against the Twins, who came to town having won 19 of 24 games since the All-Star break.
To make room for Conine on the roster, the Orioles optioned utility man Howie Clark to ClassAAA Rochester. Clark, a 28-year-old rookie, hit .302 in 14 games and will likely be brought back to Baltimore when rosters expand next month. …
The Orioles have agreed to terms with outfielder Corey Shafer, their second-round pick from June's amateur draft. Shafer, a 19-year-old from Oklahoma, is expected to report to ClassA Aberdeen. First-round pick Adam Loewen, the No.4 overall selection, remains unsigned.

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