DETROIT -- One of the most incredible facts of this, or any other, year is that the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays have been separated by no more than one game for the last 45 days.
That is especially true for anyone who watched the Orioles lose to the Detroit Tigers the past two days. One who did, however, is convinced the amazing scenario being carried out atop the standings of the American League East isn't likely to undergo a radical change.
"Don't be surprised if it stays like that," said manager Sparky Anderson, whose Tigers knocked the Orioles out of first place with a 7-4 win here yesterday. "They [the Blue Jays and Orioles] are the only two teams in the East that can win.
"Toronto isn't going to run away from them," said Anderson. "They are the only team that can beat the Blue Jays."
Provided, of course, that the Orioles revert back to previous form and don't continue to play as they did in the last two games.
"I don't think you should feel too bad after beating a team six out of eight," said Anderson.
Before their lost weekend, which began with a 15-1 bashing Saturday night, the Orioles had beaten the Tigers six straight times. That was enough to keep Anderson on the bandwagon he joined during spring training, when he predicted the Orioles would be the most improved team in the majors.
How the Orioles react in the next three days to what happened during the last two could be an indication of how prophetic Anderson will be. During the last 48 hours the Orioles performed a very realistic impression of last year's 95-loss team.
Not only were two of their five starters, Bob Milacki and Jose Mesa, treated rudely, but reliever Mike Flanagan threw in a career nightmare, adding to the concern.
The Orioles have lost eight of the 10 games Mesa (2-7) has started this year and the righthander has won only four of his last 26 starts, dating back to May 16, 1991. Compared to the team's overall record (37-24), that's enough to make Mesa an obvious fall guy.
Without pretending to have an answer as to how a pitcher can retire 21 of the first 22 hitters (as Mesa did against Boston in his last start) and give up three rapid-fire extra-base hits to blow a three-run lead (as he did yesterday), manager John Oates tried to keep everything in perspective.
"It's a lot better than losing the first two and the last two," he said when asked about the disappointing four-game split in Detroit.
Yesterday, Mesa went into the fifth inning looking like he was going to put solid efforts back to back for the first time since early last season. But he momentarily came unglued and three straight two-out hits tied the score before Oates could even get a reliever ready.
The bullpen was already short, after picking up seven innings in relief of Milacki the night before.
"I can't get somebody up every inning," said Oates. "There comes a time when these guys have to pitch some innings.
"He [Mesa] was one pitch away from getting out of it, but he didn't make it. Milacki was one pitch away from getting out of it [Saturday night] -- with nobody on base -- and he gave up four runs."
Complicating the situation yesterday, Mesa appeared to have regrouped when he came back and worked an effective sixth inning. But then he was KO'd by Milt Cuyler's leadoff double in the seventh, whereupon Storm Davis made an unsuccessful attempt to quell the uprising.
"I don't have an answer," Oates replied to a question about Mesa. "I saw the same stuff out there [yesterday] that I saw before."
With slightly different results. Whereas Mesa recorded 16 ground ball outs (of 21) against the Red Sox, he got only three yesterday -- and one of those was a bunt.
"That's a combination of two things," said Oates. "I think he was up a little more with his pitches, and they [the Tigers] are a fly ball-hitting team."
Catcher Jeff Tackett had the best view of Mesa, and insisted there was little, if any, difference between the way he threw against the Tigers and the Red Sox five days earlier.
"I thought he pitched a real good game," said Tackett, making a rare start to give Chris Hoiles a day off. "I didn't see any difference from the last time. He had good stuff and threw all of his pitches for strikes."
Mesa likewise seemed perplexed by the outcome, but admitted his location was to blame in the fifth inning. "My pitches were all up in that inning," he said. "But other than that, I felt the same."
Which is about the same way Oates saw the game. "The problem is," he said, "you've got to play all nine innings. You can't erase one."
Just like Flanagan couldn't erase the disaster that hit him in the eighth inning Saturday night. In the game only to get some work, the veteran lefthander got more than he bargained for -- giving up three walks, hitting two batters, allowing six hits and being charged with eight runs.
It was an embarrassing situation that, under the circumstances, was unavoidable. Oates had no alternatives other than to use a position player because Alan Mills and Todd Frohwirth had already pitched, Davis was suffering from the flu and closer Gregg Olson couldn't be used in such a situation.
Flanagan has struggled with his control most of the season, which is bothersome to both himself and Oates. "I just haven't made quality pitches," said Flanagan. "I feel like I get close, but I haven't gotten locked in."
Oates is hoping to find a refresher course that will work. "We have to go back and come up with something to see why it's not working now," he said.
For Flanagan, researching his success last year in an effort to find an answer to his problems is OK. But for the rest of the Orioles, the last 48 hours is reminder enough.
ORIOLES VS. INDIANS * Site: Cleveland Stadium
* Dates and times: Tonight, 7:35; tomorrow, 7:35 p.m.; Wednesday, 1:35 p.m.
* TV: Channels 2 and 20, tonight and tomorrow night. Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
* Season series: Orioles lead, 2-1
* Pitching matchups tonight: Rick Sutcliffe (9-4, 3.98) vs. Denis Boucher (2-1, 4.98)