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Royal opportunity Letdown in K.C. would make Orioles' reality check bounce


TORONTO -- Now comes the tough part.

Escaping Canada without either suffering or inflicting major damage was only the first step for the Orioles on this two-city road trip. They proved their worth and held their ground in Toronto, but this is a time they have to stay focused.

The Blue Jays headed for the same border last night, embarking on a two-week road trip that could be difficult (Cleveland, Milwaukee, Minnesota and Chicago). The Orioles have three games in Kansas City, starting tonight, before going home for nine games against the three West Coast teams.

What happens in the next three days could have more bearing on the rest of the season than did the last four in Toronto. The Orioles can't afford to give away whatever ground they saved against the Blue Jays.

Traditionally, the teams that play best after a big head-to-head series are the ones that survive in a tight race. Which means the Orioles have to approach this weekend the same way they did the series against the Blue Jays: Don't surrender any turf.

Sooner or later the Orioles have to find a way to make up the games, because each game Toronto treads water is another day off the calendar. They have a more favorable schedule the rest of the way, but staying close will work for only so long.

That's what makes this weekend, with its natural potential for a letdown, so vital if the Orioles are going to stay in the race until the end. They are going to be tested, starting tonight when Rick Sutcliffe (11-11) has a tough matchup against Kevin Appier (12-3).

Letdown? What letdown?

"I don't think we approached this [Toronto] series any different than we did the last series, or the one before that," Sutcliffe said yesterday. "There was absolutely no change in our clubhouse -- no speech from the manager, nothing. And I don't think that's going to change."

Still, even though there were no visible signs of a different approach, the Orioles did go into the series against the Blue Jays with some sense of urgency. "We needed to split or win three out of four more than they did," admitted Sutcliffe.

"If we had come in and swept, they would've still been in it. Now that it's over, I think we proved we're a much better team than we were earlier in the year.

"But we knew this wasn't going to be an easy trip. I think all of us are looking forward to that homestand we have coming up -- but we know we've got to play good baseball to enjoy it.

"I don't think there's any problem realizing how important the Kansas City series is," said Sutcliffe, who is hoping his personal fortunes have taken a turn for the better.

"I know that pitching is important this time of the year," said Sutcliffe. "If you have good pitching, it never looks like you have a letdown because you're always close.

"We came in here [Toronto] and proved to them that we're a better team [than earlier in the season]. If we had come in and played the way we did before [losing three straight] it could have been disastrous.

"But we've still got a way to go. For that reason, you can't approach any series different than any other," said Sutcliffe. "For myself, the last couple of times out obviously were a tremendous improvement over July [when he was winless].

"We've won both games I've started in August and that's a trend that needs to continue. There's no such thing as winning ugly now -- winning is the only thing that matters. That's the only goal I have right now."

Coming out of Toronto with a split of the four-game series is considered a plus for the Orioles. Especially with the Blue Jays facing a tough two-week road trip and a difficult schedule the rest of the way.

But the fact remains that the Orioles still have to make up two games. "You can play around with the schedule all you want," said manager Johnny Oates.

"They are finished with Oakland, we're finished with Minnesota, Texas and Chicago. What it comes down to is that we all have to play each other."

Given the circumstances, Oates wasn't satisfied to leave Toronto with a split of the four games. But neither was he discouraged.

"I like our club," he said. "I like our clubhouse. We're loose, we're playing with confidence.

"Right now, considering they [have a two-game lead], I'd say we probably have the second-best chance to win the division," quipped Oates.

Then Oates was told about the theory of Detroit manager Sparky Anderson, who predicted Milwaukee and Toronto (who have seven games left) would cancel each other out -- and the Orioles would slip through the opening. The problem with that theory is that the Orioles also have seven games left with Milwaukee.

"They have seven with Milwaukee, we have seven with Milwaukee -- when you get finished canceling everything out, you're back where you started," said Oates.

Which is exactly where the Orioles are right now. Except for the four days that left the calendar, they are in the same position going into Kansas City that they were when they arrived in Toronto. Now they have to be concerned about getting back to Baltimore no worse than they were when they left.

And when you start rationalizing like that, you know the really big games are getting close.

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