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Thunk.

That sound you heard last night was not Santa's sleigh landing on your roof.  It was the Orioles falling into the basement in the AL East.

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"But wait," you say, "the Orioles didn't play." True, they had a day off to reflect on their current five-game losing streak and perhaps on how to get along with each other. But Tampa Bay beat Texas, 8-6, and in the mad scramble that's the AL East for second/fifth place, the O's suffered as a result. Only one game separates sub-.500 New York, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox (28-12), winners of two against Detroit yesterday, are so far out in front already, only a Rocket could catch them -- and we're not sure about that.

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* Meanwhile, the Washington Nationals, last in the NL East, suddenly look like a real baseball team -- which is bad news for the Orioles. The Nats beat Atlanta, 4-3, yesterday for their fifth win in the last six games after starting the season 9-25.

Interleague play begins this weekend and who do the Orioles get as their first opponent? The Washington Nationals. Instead of getting a break by having to play against a team that's struggling like the Orioles, the O's face the prospect of running into a hot team that's starting to believe in itself.

* The Detroit Pistons finally closed out their second-round NBA playolf series against the Chicago Bulls last night, 95-85.  The Pistons had jumped to a 3-0 series lead but had allowed the Bulls to claw their way back into contention with two straight wins. For Detroit, Richard Hamilton had 24 points and Chauncey Billups had 21 with seven assists. Tonight are two Game 6s -- Phoenix at San Antonio (Spurs lead, 3-2) in the West and Cleveland at New Jersey (Cavaliers lead, 3-2) in the East.

* In the NHL Western Conference finals, Anaheim evened its series with Detroit, 2-2. The Ducks won, 3-1, even though their best player through the playoffs, defenseman Chris Pronger (3 goals, 9 assists), was cooling his skates, sitting out a one-game suspension for plastering Red Wing Tomas Holstrom against the glass the previous game.

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