The Orioles have one more chance to get off to a good start. They are looking at the second half of the 1993 season as a new beginning, and no one wants to waste it.
Remember April, or are you trying to forget it? The Orioles started 5-13 and looked as if they were going to puncture a lot of inflated preseason expectations. They had slipped 10 1/2 games out of first place by late May, but came back to close within 1 1/2 at the All-Star break.
"It's a new start for us," manager Johnny Oates said. "We're right in the thick of things. It's important for us to get off to a good start. It's important to get into the right frame of mind."
That's why Oates could not relax over the three-day All-Star break. When he wasn't filling out lineup cards and workout schedules for All-Star manager Cito Gaston, he was pondering possible batting orders for the four-game series between the Orioles and Minnesota Twins that begins tonight at Camden Yards.
"I want to see into the future," Oates said Tuesday. "I know that's not possible, but I want to see what the five or 10 days after the break is going to bring."
He is confident that it is not going to bring the kind of fundamental meltdown that made April so awful, but he faces some of the same questions that he did at the start of the season.
The lineup is not set anymore. It began to evolve a couple of weeks ago, when rookie phenom Jeffrey Hammonds was called upon to fill in for ailing left fielder Brady Anderson. It has been further transformed by the injury that recently sidelined third baseman Leo Gomez, which created room to play Hammonds and utility man Mark McLemore at the same time. The Orioles may end up stronger as a result, but Oates still is searching for the perfect lineup chemistry.
Anderson had been the full-time leadoff man from Opening Day of 1992 until he was forced out of the lineup by chicken pox in June, but he will not return to the top of the order -- at least not right away. Harold Reynolds was inserted into the leadoff role when Anderson fell ill and responded with a 15-game hitting streak.
"It's going to stay the way it is as long as the two guys at the top of the order [Reynolds and McLemore] keep getting on base two or three times a game," Oates said. "Brady can drive in some runs from the eighth spot."
No one doubts that Anderson eventually will regain the full-time leadoff role, but he is not in a position to complain because the club has played well and gained ground on first place.
"I don't think he expects it to be permanent," Oates said. "Neither do I, but there will be a right time to move him back to the top."
This is something new for Reynolds, who never has been in a pennant race. The Seattle Mariners once stayed in contention until August, but no one considered them a pennant threat. The Orioles are preparing to head down the stretch in the thick of a five-team race, and Reynolds can't wait.
"I'm excited about the second half," he said. "It's going to be great. We have really battled to turn things around. I think we felt early in the season if we could get within five or six games at the break, we'd be all right. We're only 1 1/2 games out. If we stay healthy and continue to bloom, it's going to be an exciting race."
There are plenty of ifs, though. The Orioles need left-handed starters Fernando Valenzuela and Jamie Moyer to continue to surprise a baseball world that had given up on them. They need Anderson and Devereaux, both of whom spent time on the disabled list in the first half, to assert themselves the way they did a year ago. They need Rick Sutcliffe to pull out of another midseason slump and Ben McDonald to keep pitching the way he has the past two months.
McDonald, who will face Scott Erickson in tonight's series opener against the Twins, is positive about the club's potential for improvement in the second half.
"Look what we've done to get back in this thing," he said. "We're not going to play as badly as we did in April. If we hadn't gotten off to that kind of start, we'd be leading the league right now. But we're 1 1/2 games out and we've got a chance to win. That's about all you can ask for."
There are four other teams in the division who can say about the same thing, a fact that is not lost on McDonald and his optimistic teammates.
"Toronto isn't playing that well right now, but they are going to get better," McDonald said. "The Yankees are playing well, and they aren't going to go away. I don't think Detroit is going away, either. It's going to be a dogfight. We'd just like to get out in front and put some pressure on them."
Devereaux agrees. He has overcome a neck injury and is beginning to re-establish himself as one of the cornerstones of the Orioles' batting order. He is looking forward to the stretch as much as anyone.
"All I know is that it's going to be fun," he said. "Right now, it is one of the closest races in history. That makes it exciting. I'm sure every one of those teams thinks it has a chance to win it."
Sutcliffe, one of a handful of Orioles veterans who have been on pennant winners, says the key is getting an early second-half jump on the competition.
"I'm tired of chasing people," he said. "It would be nice to get out there and let them chase us for a while."