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Orioles growing up and catching up


TORONTO -- The ball was bouncing up the alley to the fence and Mike Devereaux was sprinting around first base and the third and fourth and fifth runs of the inning were crossing the plate, and it meant more than just the Orioles' 65th win of the season. You had better believe it did.

It meant that the race in the American League East was different now. The molecules of the thing were changing for keeps on this cool night with the roof of the SkyDome closed. The Blue Jays were no longer the chalk choice on the tote board. The Orioles were no longer just the Jays' cute shadow, hanging around longer than anyone had expected.

It was just the top of the fifth inning and already the Orioles were up seven runs on the Jays, throwing the kinds of killer punches they almost never throw, certainly not in this place. And the whole thing in the AL East was different now. You had better believe it. These two teams were equals now.

Is anyone out there still saying this is not a big series?

Didn't think so.

You hate to pull a couple of games out of 162 and attach particular meaning, but the Orioles are growing up here. As contenders, they are celebrating a passage rite. Boys to men. Imagined to real -- in their own minds as much as anyone's.

They came in here two games back and thinking big. Then the Jays clobbered their best pitcher Monday, a knee-weakening result that scared up all those memories of the Orioles' many SkyDome disasters. The players were on a psychological precipice. Could they ever beat the Jays here? Could they ever beat the Jays, period, when it mattered? And how could they really hope to contend if the answer to both questions was no?

So Tuesday night they got huge performances from Alan Mills and Todd Frohwirth, stranding Jays all over the place, in a 3-0 win that evened the four-game series. And then last night, suddenly, the Orioles were just pounding. Walloping. Beating on the Jays to the point that SkyDome was cleared out long before the final pitch of the 11-4 win.

You have to understand: This is not something these Orioles do. They win little, not big. They win with pitching and defense. They do not blow people out. They lead the majors in runners left on base. They win, but they keep it interesting.

There was more of the same for a while last night. In the top of the third, the Orioles scored three runs, but left the bases loaded. The Jays tied it in their third. Then the Orioles scored twice in the fourth, but a Cal Ripken double play closed a two-on, one-out opening. Keeping it interesting.

But then it was the fifth and the Orioles were just pounding. Four hits. Five runs. Devereaux clearing the bases with a long double up the left-center alley. And, suddenly, all those old SkyDome goblins were just vanishing. The '89 series. The April sweep this year. These Orioles were different. These Orioles could play here. And more importantly, they could play with the team that plays here.

"I know they thought we'd probably fold up somewhere along the line, maybe on a long road trip or coming in here," closer Gregg Olson said. "But different people keep coming through for us every night. I know this much: Putting a 10-spot on them like this, in this situation, that has to catch their attention."

And it puts the Orioles in a position to really catch their attention. Today, they are pitching Arthur Rhodes against the Jays' Doug Linton, a rookie without a major-league win. Label it a huge opportunity. A chance to take three of four. Tie for first. Finish sending the message that they are equals.

"We win this next one and it gets real interesting," Olson said.

But even if they do not win today, they already have done what had to be done here. They just could not afford to have a bad series. Another SkyDome disaster. Not so much for what it would mean in the standings as what it would reaffirm. That, for all their tough stuff, they were simply a notch below the Jays.

Well, forget that.

If there is a lesson to take from this series, it is that what appeared to be true beforehand is indeed true: The Jays are vulnerable. The Orioles are in better shape, at least right now.

The Jays' rotation is a mess. Their best pitcher is hurt. Their big hitters, Joe Carter and Dave Winfield, are not delivering in the clutch. The Orioles have the young, strong arms in this race. The Jays have pressure on their shoulders and trouble on their hands. And they are feeling it. To recognize that, all you had to see was the door to manager Cito Gaston's office after the game last night. It was closed. And it stayed closed. The man never spoke to anyone. He just did not want to talk.

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