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Stretch of reality awaits Orioles With 7 weeks to go, a bit of luck needed


What once was considered a stretch of the imagination has come down to a seven-week stretch run. The Orioles have turned the corner -- going from struggling divisional wannabes to legitimate contenders in four months -- and now have a real opportunity to win the American League East title.

But the events of the past week end didn't help.

The Orioles lost two of three games to the long-suffering Kansas City Royals, and that wasn't the half of it. Even the one victory came with strings attached.

Veteran pitcher Rick Sutcliffe revealed that he had strained a muscle in his right shoulder during his previous start. It isn't considered a serious problem, but it is unsettling for a club that needs a lot to go right if it is to overtake the first-place Toronto Blue Jays.

The next night, right fielder Joe Orsulak suffered a badly sprained left thumb and a variety of other bumps and bruises while trying to make a diving catch on the AstroTurf at Royals Stadium. Orsulak was examined yesterday, and a decision on his status is expected today.

Orsulak is the team's leading hitter. He has swung one of the hottest bats in baseball for the past six weeks. If he is out for an extended period, it could be a significant loss.

The series ended in a 17-hit barrage that sent the Orioles home reeling from one of the worst losses in club history. They open a nine-game homestand tonight with the first of three games against the last-place Seattle Mariners. After that, six of the next 12 games are against the AL West-leading Oakland Athletics.

Manager Johnny Oates could be cursing the fates right now, but he knows that the injury situation could be far worse. The club should get catcher Chris Hoiles back some time this week, perhaps in time for this series. The Orioles already have weathered a time-consuming injury to first baseman Glenn Davis. Other teams -- including the Blue Jays -- have had it worse.

"We lost Glenn for a large portion of the year and we lost Jim Poole and [Mark] Williamson and Chris," Oates said. "There may be teams that have lost less, but there are a lot of teams that have lost a whole lot more."

The Blue Jays have temporarily lost starting pitcher Juan Guzman, who has been their most effective pitcher. They have had to play without a healthy Kelly Gruber, who has been in and out of the lineup because of a variety of ailments. The A's also have continued to win despite the loss of shortstop Walt Weiss, nagging injuries to leadoff man Rickey Henderson and slugger Jose Canseco and a couple of months without starting pitcher Bob Welch.

"The area where we've been most fortunate is the rotation," Oates said. "The time that Mike Mussina was sick, those were the only two starts we've lost because of injury. We're only two-thirds of the way through the season. We still have a long way to go. I just hope that keeps up."

The rebuilt starting rotation figures to be the determining factor in the Orioles' run at the division title.

Sutcliffe, healthy or not, has put together three straight solid outings. Ben McDonald, who will open the series against the Mariners tonight, has won three straight after struggling to keep the ball in the park in June and July.

Mike Mussina has not been as consistent of late as he was during the first half, but he still has the best numbers of the rotation.

If the club continues to get solid performances from Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills, the Orioles should be in position to make a strong run at the regrouping Blue Jays.

Toronto appears to have superior organizational depth, but the Orioles have yet to come up empty when they have gone looking for someone to fill a hole. The spring trade for Mills -- seemingly insignificant at the time -- diminished the impact of injuries to Williamson and later to Storm Davis. The club plucked left-hander Pat Clements off waivers at a pivotal juncture. Earlier decisions, such as the signing of second baseman Mark McLemore last year, also have paid off this year.

And because the team is in a pennant race, the front office might not be done dealing. The Seattle Times reported yesterday that the Orioles have expressed interest in acquiring Mariners second baseman Harold Reynolds, a two-time All-Star.

Orioles officials would not confirm that report, and it appears that the club does not consider second base a team need right now.

None of the acquisitions the club has made would have been enough to keep the Orioles in the race if they had gone through the same kind of injury epidemics that hurt the team in the previous two seasons.

"I believe we have used the DL this year less than any Orioles team in a lot of years," Oates said.

The Orioles have placed six players on the disabled list this season, compared with an average of nearly 14 during the previous five seasons.

One of the keys to winning a division title is remaining reasonably healthy from the start. The Orioles have made it this far. That's why their pennant hopes no longer seem like such a stretch.

Orioles on the DL

The number of times the Orioles have placed a player on the VTC disabled list this season and in each of the past five years:

1992 -- 6... ... ... 1989 -- 14

1991 -- 12... ... .. 1988 -- 13

1990 -- 14... ... .. 1987 -- 13

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