Losing streak is for real, but so are Orioles' chances


As recently as last Sunday, the Orioles were on a pace to win 108 games. All this four-game losing streak means is that things are finally balancing out.

Such downturns are inevitable during a 162-game schedule. The encouraging part is, the Orioles played nearly one-fourth of their season without losing this many in a row.

They're obviously for real, and Oakland manager Tony La Russa marveled at their turnaround even as his club became the first visiting team to sweep a series at Camden Yards.

"There are some truths in baseball," La Russa said last night after the A's made it three straight over the Orioles, squeezing out a 4-2 victory in a game tied after six innings.

"If your club plays with a lot of enthusiasm, does things fundamentally sound and pitches as aggressively as they are, you're going to have a good to great year.

"That's what they're going to have -- a good to great year. They're a legitimate club. And because of the improved pitching, that division is going to have a real race."

The Orioles no longer are in first place, and they no longer own the best record in the majors, but they can take comfort knowing the AL East already is in mid-September form.

Name another division where a team can reclaim the lead, lose three straight and hold its position. The Orioles did it this week, and the trend nearly continued last night.

Alas, Toronto ended its five-game losing streak, beating Minnesota, 8-7, in 10 innings. Not to worry, even with Jack Morris and Dave Winfield, it's clear the Blow Jays are back.

"Two weeks ago, everyone had them clinching the division by the end of August," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "I don't think anybody's saying that now."

Oates' point is that things change rapidly in this game -- pitch by pitch, inning by inning, day by day. It's impossible to forecast what will happen tomorrow, let alone in August.

That said, the real danger for the Orioles is that the Jays will continue their slide, get manager Cito Gaston fired and ignite the same way Boston did after Joe Morgan took over in 1988.

It's an improbable scenario, but give it time. At the moment, the Blow Jays aren't running away from anyone -- they lead the Orioles by a half-game, New York by 2 1/2 , Boston by four.

So, what's next?

For the Orioles, a significant, but not critical, phase. They host California this weekend, then leave for a nine-game West Coast trip before returning home to face Toronto and Boston.

They didn't play especially poorly against Oakland, they just got beat. It happens when you go 4-for-24 (.167) with men in scoring position. It happens when you trail the entire series.

It happens, period.

Last night's game turned on two wild pitches by Mike Mussina, both of which led to Oakland runs. Mussina threw only three wild pitches his first 139 2/3 major-league innings.

It happens.

"When you're going really good, it seems everything you hit falls in, and everything they hit turns into a double play," Oates said. "Now the shoe's on the other foot. You can't figure this game out.

"You look at our first 35 ballgames. If we needed a base hit, we got it. If we needed a home run, we got it. If we needed a double play we got it."

The Orioles weren't lucky -- they won because several hitters provided unexpected production, and because Mussina, Rick Sutcliffe and Ben McDonald formed the nucleus of the starting rotation.

As long as those three stay healthy, the club is almost certain to contend. Right now, each is on a pace to win 20 games, make 30 starts and pitch 200 innings.

The idea of three 20-game winners seems especially unrealistic, but if nothing else, the Big Three has changed the outlook of a team that last season had the highest ERA in the majors.

That's the foundation.

From there, a championship team is fueled by surprise players like Chris Hoiles and Brady Anderson, role players like Mark McLemore and Tim Hulett, star players like Cal Ripken and Glenn Davis.

Those elements are in place, even with Ripken hitting .231 and Davis just starting to play regularly. Thus, a four-game losing streak against the top two teams in the AL West (Chicago and Oakland) hardly seems cause for alarm.

The Orioles are in a better position than they ever imagined. In fact, they're in such good position, they can win 86 games simply by playing one over .500 the rest of the season.

Keep an eye on those Blow Jays.

It's going to be a race.

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