Toronto trip is Orioles' perfect opportunity


Never, perhaps, has a contender been more excited about trading a last-place opponent for a first-place opponent.

That stack of Indians jokes on the tip of your tongue? Swallow 'em. They won't play in this town anymore.

"You figure you should take two of three from Cleveland," Randy Milligan said yesterday. "I tell you. That was brutal."

Brutal? Well, getting swept at home by the Indians in the middle of a pennant race certainly would have qualified as brutal, but the Orioles huffed and puffed and finally blew them down at least once yesterday at Camden Yards, winning the last game of the series in 10 jumpy innings. Then the talk turned to Toronto, naturally.

"Better get out your cliche pad," manager Johnny Oates said.

Cal Ripken said that the upcoming and much-trumpeted four-game series with the Blue Jays, which begins tonight in Toronto, "is not going to make or break us."

Rick Sutcliffe said that the first game in Kansas City next weekend would be "just as big" as any of the four in Toronto.

Oates said it was "just too early" in the season for it to be a must-win series.

Now, in fairness, no one is trotting out any fiction there. When a team is just two games out of first place, as are the Orioles after the 3-2 win yesterday, nothing can happen in the second week of August that can't be overcome.

But can we talk here? Can we just push aside all this blah-blah and get serious?

Are they kidding?

This is much, much more than just another series. This is a perfectly measured chance for the Orioles to deliver an uppercut square on the Jays' chin. A glorious chance for the Orioles to take control of the division race -- in person, no less.

Folks, it won't get any better than this. Opportunities just do not get more presentable. The Jays will never be more vulnerable than right now.

And despite what the Indians did to them, the Orioles are playing with more sharpness and confidence than at any time in the past three months.

The timing simply will never be better for the Orioles to make a major move.

Has anyone else noticed what is happening in Toronto? The Jays are blowing up faster than Ross Perot's campaign did.

The Indians -- three games over .500 since late May -- are a tougher opponent than the Jays right now. And that is not a tough call.

That the Jays are wob-wob-wobbling along became evident for all to see as they were losing three of four to the bored and flabby Tigers over the weekend. But evidence of these troubles was there long before they reached Detroit.

Try on this little number: 5.19. That is the Jays' ERA since the All-Star break. Is that ugly enough? The miracle is that they're .500 in the 24 games since the break. They aren't getting anyone out.

Their pitching staff, ranked among the league leaders earlier in the season, has sunk to eighth out of 14 on the charts, with a bullet pointing south.

The No. 1 starter, Juan Guzman, is on the disabled list with a return not imminent. The No. 2 starter, Jack Morris, is the luckiest 14-win pitcher in the majors. He has allowed 216 base runners in 159 innings. That is Jeff Robinson territory. Ignore the 14 wins. Morris is getting hit hard.

The other starters are getting hit equally hard. Jimmy Key, Todd Stottlemyre, David Wells -- their numbers are not pretty. The bullpen is holding up reasonably, even if Duane Ward is not the guaranteed save of a year ago. But the starters are hide-your-eyes ugly.

Meanwhile, the Orioles have won nine of 13 in the past two weeks. True, it was against the bottom of the division, but look beneath that surface. Ben McDonald is hinting at delivering more consistently. Mike Mussina has come out of a mini-funk. Sutcliffe's past two outings have been contender-worthy.

It was unthinkable a few weeks ago, but the Orioles' pitching is more stable than the Jays'. And pitching will decide this race.

If the Orioles could win three of four in Toronto, which should be their goal, they not only would pull even with the Jays in the standings, but also would give the Jays a seriously sinking feeling.

It is the kind of result the Orioles need if they are going to win the division this time instead of falling just short, as they did in 1989. The difference that year was that they could not win in Toronto. Get the message?

Anything less than three of four would leave the Orioles right where they are today, at best, and that is not bad. That is a standings shortfall that can be made up. Of course.

But here is a hunch: If the Orioles do not make up ground on the Jays this week, they will not win the division. You win by throwing big punches, not by letting the other team heal. Yeah, big punches. And there sits the Jays' jaw, unprotected.

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