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Home stretch should keep O's close to pace


Besides capacity crowds and other natural advantages inherent with a new facility, Oriole Park at Camden Yards may provide its tenant with an inadvertent bonus this year.

When the Orioles open a long weekend series against the Yankees tonight (7:35) it will mark the beginning of a stretch that has them playing 10 of the next 13, and 17 of the next 23 games at home. They have only two short road trips, three games each, to Milwaukee and Minnesota between now and the All-Star break (July 13-15).

That could be significant for two reasons -- the Orioles have the best winning percentage (.655) and have played the fewest home games (29) in the American League. At least the latter number will change drastically in the next three weeks, as the Orioles approach and pass the midpoint of the season -- and perhaps set the tone for the second half.

The seeming imbalance of the schedule -- the Orioles also have a stretch that has them playing 16 of 20 at home in September -- is not completely a quirk of fate. The schedule was drawn up purposely to give the Orioles a reasonable "shakedown" period by avoiding a heavy home schedule in April. And the appearance of division rivals New York, Toronto and Boston during the September closeout practically guaranteed the new park would retain its drawing power throughout the season.

Subsequent events have proven scheduling favors to be unnecessary in that regard, but nevertheless the Orioles are now in position to capitalize.

They were scheduled on the road for 15 of the first 22 dates. Even at this point they have almost half their road games (35 of 81) in the record book.

As insignificant as those few extra home games may appear, they will reduce the rigors of playing on the road over the last half of the season. Whether that becomes a factor in the pennant race remains to be seen, but there is no denying the fact that the Orioles are in a position to take advantage of the schedule the rest of the way.

While the home-field (crowd?) advantage may come into play -- the next three opponents, New York, Kansas City and Milwaukee, are the last three to make their debuts in the new park -- there are other, more imminent, concerns for Orioles manager Johnny Oates.

One of the most pressing to figure is a way to get Bob Milacki, tonight's starting pitcher, in a consistent groove. For the last three years, the righthander has been the closest thing to a "workhorse" the Orioles had in their rotation.

Ever since his 14-12 rookie year in 1989, Milacki has been considered the staff's potential "stopper." But, though there have been flashes, Milacki has struggled to find the consistency that made him so dependable when he first reached the big leagues.

There doesn't appear to be any difference, physically, although Oates has expressed some concern about Milacki's velocity.

"I don't know what it is," said Oates. "But I know some people, some scouts, who said he was only throwing 83 [mph] in Detroit [last Saturday night].

"That's about four or five miles an hour slower than what he's thrown in the past," added Oates, who said he could perceive a difference from the dugout. "I don't know what the answer is.

"At times he's thrown good. When he's popped the ball, he's thrown good. Other times he hasn't, and those times he didn't pitch too good."

Milacki's last outing was an example of the latter. He gave up a pair of two-run homers in the first inning, and was gone by the third in the 15-1 loss that started the Orioles on the slide that resulted in four losses in the last five games.

"When he keeps the ball down and spots his fastball he can be outstanding," said Oates. "But everything has to be right for him.

"When he pitches up, or behind in the count, he becomes very vTC hittable -- which is the case with most pitchers."

The Yankees are one of the teams against whom Milacki has had success in the past (5-0 going into this year), but it didn't carry over to his last start, April 24, in New York. He gave up four runs and six hits and was knocked out in the second inning of a 5-0 loss in the first meeting between the teams this year.

That game as well as his last one in Detroit, have been typical of Milacki (5-4). When he escapes the early innings without undue damage, he tends to settle into an effective routine. That's what enabled him to run off a modest string of three straight wins earlier.

And that's the groove Milacki will be looking for against the Yankees tonight.

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