"There's a lot of talk going on about it," Baltimore Orioles catcher Chris Hoiles was saying before last night's game at Camden Yards. "We've come from so far back. We've made up so much ground. It's hard not to think about it."
Less than two months after they found themselves much closer to last than first in the American League East -- 1 1/2 games above the last place Cleveland Indians, 10 1/2 below the then the front-running Detroit Tigers on May 30 -- the Orioles marched into first last night.
A trifecta of the Orioles' 7-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals before a sellout crowd of 45,983, as well as defeats for both the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees, moved Baltimore into first for the first time in a little over a year. At 52-42, the Orioles are a half-game ahead of the Blue Jays and Yankees.
Last night's victory -- won on a sparkling one-hitter by righthander Ben McDonald -- was the third straight win for Baltimore, the fifth in six games since the All-Star break and the ninth is the past 12 games. The Orioles have gone 32-13 since May 31, the best record in baseball.
It seemed that the Orioles, who had a chance to move into first last Saturday before losing to the Minnesota Twins, were going to have a wait a while longer. But the Yankees blew a 5-0 lead at home before losing to the Seattle Mariners, 8 -5, while the Blue Jays saw an early 1-0 lead turn into a 2-1 loss in Chicago to the White Sox.
At 10:29 p.m., as future Hall-of-Famer George Brett grounded into a game- ending doubleplay, the trifector was complete. The huge scoreboard in centerfield exploded with the words "First Place!", flashing them over and over again. Not that Johnny Oates noticed.
"To me, on July 20, first place means absolutely zero," said the Orioles manager, whose team started the season 5-13, the worst record in the majors at the time. "What means something is being in first after the season is over. We get nothing for being in first place now."
"I'd rather be where we are now than be 10 1/2 games back," said Oates.
Where the Orioles are today is somewhere they haven't been since July 19, 1992. While the crowd at Camden Yards roared at the news of nearly simultaneous defeats by the Blue Jays and Yankees -- as well as the now fourth-place Tigers - - the players took their new-found status as their manager did: non-chalance.
"I don't get excited," said designated hitter Harold Baines, whose second- inning home run gave McDonald all the support he needed. "It's a nice feeling to come from 10 1/2 games back. I knew we had the ability coming out of spring training. We just got out to a bad start, but nobody gave up."
Said relief pitcher Gregg Olson, "It just means we're ahead. Nobody is going to run around going crazy. What we do from here on out is what matters."
"If we win every game the rest of the year, I guarantee we'll win the division," said Olson.
The Orioles fans were certainly a little more exited than the players were, at least outwardly. They cheered the out-of-town scores as if it were late September, not July. They celebrated as the walked out into the warm evening.
Steve Mercurio, a Navy flight officer who lives in Columbia, is a displaced New Yorker who now claims the Orioles as his favorite team. "I like the way they've been building this year, bringing the young guys up from Rochester," he said as he left the stadium with his wife, son and nephew. "Last year was a letdown at the end. I think Johnny Oates has done a great job bringing this team back."
All the way back to first place.
Those were two words nobody in Baltimore was thinking about a little less than two months ago.