Blue Jays better, but are they best?


TORONTO -- Robbie Alomar could not get a sacrifice bunt down with the score tied in the eighth, so he hit a double and won the game. Such is life for the Blue Jays these days: Things are not going as planned, but sometimes they work out.


The Jays managed to beat the Orioles and split this series with a late rally yesterday, but the result did not change the impression that these four games left: that the Orioles are making a move and the Jays are just hanging on.

"They sent us a message in this series, I think," Jays closer Tom Henke said yesterday. "They're here to stay [in the race]. They have a tough team. I think we're going down to the end of the season with them."

That the American League East might have such an unforetold ending testifies to the Orioles' surprisingly potent mix of fielding, young arms and upside-down offense. But more than anything, it testifies to the Jays' inability to meet their potential.

If the Orioles win the division, it will be because the Jays give it away. That is the fundamental law of this race.

The Jays have the more accomplished and experienced team. They bought several of the important pieces, but who doesn't these days? Anyway, they have 11 players with all-star %o experience, and there is no doubt that they should win the division -- maybe not by the 15 games third baseman Kelly Gruber predicted in March, but by a reasonable margin.

Yet right now the Jays clearly are no better than the Orioles. That was the lesson of this series. Everyone on both sides could see it. If anything, the Orioles are the goods right now.

"A more stable rotation, great defense, solid hitting," Alomar said, all but agreeing. "Nice team. And we just aren't playing that well."

I said before the series that the Orioles needed to gain ground here if they hoped to win the division -- because you need to beat teams when they are as down as the Jays. But that was a bit extreme. As it turned out, the Orioles did not gain ground, but they still made their point.

Even after the Jays' 4-2 win yesterday, a result that prevented the Orioles from moving into a first-place tie, the Jays were not talking like the better team.

"I'm happy to split with this team and then try to win the division against everyone else," Henke said.

Happy to split? At home? Against a team with an ugly history of collapsing here?

Happy to split? After the Jays blasted Mike Mussina in the first game Monday?

Happy to split? That, friends, is the sound of a team that is not sure it believes.

"It's just that we're limping, see," Henke said. "Hey, what would the Orioles be like without Mussina? That is what missing [injured ace pitcher Juan] Guzman is like to us. Winning today was big. At least we still have the lead. Now we just need to start putting the pieces back together."

It will not be easy. As the Orioles were flying to Kansas City last night, the Jays were flying to Cleveland for a weekend series with the Indians. It is the beginning of a 12-game trip on which the Jays also will play the Brewers, Twins and White Sox.

That is a rough piece of scheduling. The Sox and Indians are hot, the Jays never win in Milwaukee and the Twins are one of the best teams in the majors. Meanwhile, only three of the Orioles' next 15 games are against a team with a winning record.

"This is an absolutely critical part of the season," Henke said. "If we're still on top of them after the next 20 days or so, I think we'll be in excellent shape."

But you can't just will it true, especially with such a messy rotation. Right now, Guzman is injured, Jack Morris is always in trouble and Jimmy Key can't get anyone out. The Jays split here only because Todd Stottlemyre and someone named Doug Linton saved them. Does that sound like a blueprint for winning a title?

The pressure on them is enormous, too. This is Fenway North now, the fans wary from years of watching the Jays come close and lose. The stands are always full, but it is a tough house. The fans did not even applaud yesterday after the Jays' game-winning eighth inning was over. They were unhappy that Gruber and Derek Bell struck out with two runners on.

Of course, all that only matters so much. The fact is that the Jays did manage to win yesterday and hold into first place. At an obviously low ebb, they did manage to keep the Orioles from gaining ground here. Sending a message is an accomplishment, but winning a division title is another matter altogether. Much tougher.

"Remember, they still have to catch us," Henke said.

And remember: The Jays do have the better team.

But will it matter?

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