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Pennant race hits home for returning Orioles


BOSTON -- With a difficult stretch of games and a highly successful road trip behind them, the Orioles have one task left if they hope to remain in serious contention.

They have to win at home. Period. It doesn't get more basic than that.

"I know," manager Johnny Oates said after yesterday's 2-1 victory over the Boston Red Sox, wearing a wry smile that admitted it is too late now to be concerned only with how his team is playing, not how many games it has won.

With a little more than a third of

the season left (57 games), the Orioles are 4 1/2 games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. Close enough to be considered contenders, maybe not close enough to be considered legitimate.

Having survived the first 18 games after the All-Star break, 14 of them on the road, with an admirable 10-8 record, the Orioles now begin the first of two long runs at home that will determine whether they have a chance to catch the Blue Jays. Starting tonight, the opener of a three-game series against the Detroit Tigers, the Orioles play 15 of their next 22 at home.

It is the first of two such

stretches remaining on the schedule. Beginning on Labor Day, the Orioles will play 16 of 20 at home, taking them into the final week of the season. If they are still in the hunt by then (within four games is a reasonable expectation), it should assure sellouts throughout the final month.

Winning in Oriole Park was almost automatic early in the season. The Orioles won 10 of their first 11 at Camden Yards, the spark that took them near the top of the standings.

But they have remained close ever since, only because they have held their own on the road. Since their early spurt, the Orioles have gone

only 18-21 at home, and have lost six of their last seven.

With a 5-and-2 road trip to New York and Boston behind them, and with a big four-game series in Toronto only a week away, this is the time for the Orioles to re-establish themselves in their new park.

"I'm encouraged," Oates said after yesterday's seat-squirming 2-1 win over the Red Sox. "We've got Glenn [Davis] going, Junior [Cal Ripken] is swinging the bat better and the pitching seems to have straightened itself out."

Indeed, Davis has become such a steady force he played a role in Boston's strategy that allowed Ripken to

drive in the winning run yesterday.

Boston manager Butch Hobson elected to pitch to Ripken with the score tied, one out and Brady Anderson on third base. His alternative was to walk Ripken and play for a double play to get out of the inning with one pitch.

"I thought about it," said Red Sox manager Butch Hobson, "but it's tough to walk somebody to get to their hottest hitter [Davis]. If we had gotten behind [in the count], I would have walked him."

Instead Paul Quantrill got ahead of Ripken, 0-and-2, but couldn't put

See ORIOLES, 3C, Col. 2 ORIOLES, From 1C him away. "He tried to come inside, but he didn't quite get it there," said Hobson. "With hitters like Ripken, you just can't make a mistake. If you do, they will get you."

Ripken's eighth-inning single and a home run by red-hot Leo Gomez (No. 12, his seventh in the last 19 games) provided all the runs the Orioles could muster against Boston starter John Dopson and relievers Tim Fossas and Quantrill.

Seven strong, if erratic, innings by Ben McDonald (11-7) and a gutty ninth-inning escape by Gregg Olson enabled those two runs to stand up for a huge victory. "It was a very big win," said Olson, who had reason to wonder if he'd be able to escape the ninth inning.

He did, despite a set of weird cir

cumstances and, when it was over that's all that mattered for Oates and the Orioles.

For only the second time this year, they concluded a road trip with a win. One day after stopping their daytime losing steak at eight, the Orioles put the end to another hex. The last time they ended a trip with a win was April 29, in Minnesota. That was their second road trip of the year, when they went 6-and-3 to begin the surge that lifted them into contention.

But that was then, and this is now. "Any time you go into Boston and win three games, you have to be happy," said Oates. Especially considering that the Orioles had to dodge the bullet a couple of times.

This would be a good time to pick up the cue from April 29, when last they came off the road with a win.

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