O's: Happy ending brings thoughts of new story in 2001

Mike Hargrove met with his ballclub yesterday after a 7-3 victory over the New York Yankees completed his first season as Orioles manager. Left fielder Delino DeShields was among the players who spoke up. The messages were the same, aimed squarely at the individuals who would be trying to prevent another fourth-place finish in 2001.

"I just told the guys they can't forget these last couple of weeks," DeShields said. "Nobody laid down for us. We just played good baseball."

The Orioles swept the Yankees in a three-game series for the first time in nine years, putting the finishing touches on an 8-3 run against playoff contenders to end the season.

They went 31-31 since the club made the first of its five waiver-deadline trades July 29. Mediocrity never looked so good.

"There's a lot of work still to be done," Hargrove said, "but I think we've taken some very good, positive steps this year to give us a shot at getting this thing back to where we want it to be, and where it should be and will be."

Chris Richard, one important piece to next year's puzzle, hit a two-run homer in the third inning off Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez (12-13), who lost to the Orioles for the first time in seven career starts. The timing somehow was appropriate, with New York dropping 15 of its last 18 games, including seven in a row.

"I'm just real fortunate that Baltimore gave me the opportunity to play every day," said Richard, who had 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 199 at-bats with the Orioles after being acquired from St. Louis. "It's been good for me, and I'm very fortunate to have been traded."

Albert Belle added his first homer since Aug. 12 on his final at-bat of the season. He also had a sacrifice fly, leaving him with 103 RBIs to go with a .281 average and 23 homers.

The Orioles scored their first run when Richard stole home on the front end of a double steal with Melvin Mora. It's a style of baseball rarely seen from a plodding club that gained fresh legs in the second half.

"We're a more creative team than before," DeShields said. "We had a really good team before, but we scored one way for the most part. Now we can hit you different ways. It's the kind of ball I grew up playing when I came into the league."

Buddy Groom entered in the eighth and become the first American League pitcher with 70 appearances in five straight seasons. He pitched in six of the final seven games to join Colorado's Mike Myers, the only other pitcher to reach the milestone. Myers got there a little ahead of Groom.

"I'd have to find a deep bunker if I didn't get him in the game," Hargrove said. "I woke up this morning and saw the fog and said, `Oh man, don't tell me.' "

"Any time you can do anything record-wise at any level, it's something to be proud of," Groom said. "I'll take it in stride and come back next year ready to go another 70."

Groom received a warm ovation when the bullpen gates swung open, and again after striking out Clay Bellinger to end the inning. But the loudest applause was reserved for Cal Ripken when he batted with one out in the eighth.

Ripken stepped out of the box and waved to the crowd, which stayed on its feet. He has every intention of returning to the Orioles next season, but he remains without a contract.

Proving his health shouldn't be an issue in negotiations, Ripken started the final six games at third base. He played the day after a night game for the first time since coming off the disabled list Sept. 1, going 1-for-3 with an RBI and two runs.

"I think what Cal has shown is when Cal's ready to play, he can play," Hargrove said.

Jose Mercedes went five innings, allowing two runs and walking six. He finished as the staff's leader in victories at 14-7, and its only starter above .500. His 11 wins in the second half are the most in the American League.

"I feel great about it because I went through a lot of stuff that people don't know about. I'm very proud of myself," said Mercedes, who wouldn't elaborate.

"It's not how the season starts, it's how it ends. Sometimes, if you end good, you forget about everything else, whatever happened in the past. That's the case with me."

Hargrove wouldn't mind forgetting about the negative aspects of this season, including the wild inconsistency in the first half that doomed the club to again finish ahead of only Tampa Bay. Having won five straight AL Central titles in Cleveland before this year, Hargrove finished yesterday in good spirits.

"I had a lot of people come up to me and say, `Oh, you've had such a tough season,' almost like they're feeling sorry for me. But I want to tell you the honest-to-goodness truth: I've enjoyed this season," he said.

"Obviously there have been parts that have been a lot more fun and enjoyable than other parts, but I've enjoyed this season. The veterans we had here were good people and good players. They played hard and I enjoyed being around them. And I learned a lot from them. Since we've gone to our kids, I've enjoyed them, too, and learned from them. It's gone fairly quickly and I'm looking forward to next year.

"We can honestly say that we're obviously playing better, but I also think we're a better team now than we were," Hargrove added. "As long as you continue that sort of progression, then it bodes well for the future."