Only a year ago they were in an almost identical situation, returning home for Labor Day from a 7-2 West Coast trip, only 1 1/2 games out of first place. They proceeded to lose five out of six at home to fall five games off the pace and effectively drop out of the race.
The Orioles return home today to start a six-game homestand after a Western trip that also ended with a 7-2 record. This time they are 2 1/2 games behind Toronto and New York, who are tied for first. If the Orioles are going to become a fixture in the race, this is where the similarities must end.
Maybe it's because of their personnel, or perhaps it's the circuitous route they have taken to get to this point, but the Orioles, who finished their sweep of Oakland yesterday, 9-2, don't acknowledge a great deal of similarity between this year and last.
"To be honest with you, I don't remember much about last year, I haven't even thought about it," said first baseman David Segui, who is a much more integral part of this team.
Shortstop Cal Ripken said he didn't think there was much to compare. "Maybe it's because of the [slow] start we had," said the All-Star shortstop. "I guess there are some similarities, but it seems different to me the way we got to this point. We didn't have the good start, and we had to endure some injuries."
With yesterday's win over the Athletics, the Orioles completed a trip that began on the brink of disaster and ended with seven straight wins.
"It's the same situation as we were in last year," said Mike Mussina, who improved his record to 14-5 with eight strong innings in the final game of the road trip.
"When we went home [last Labor Day], we were right there [in the race], but we played very poorly in September. We took ourselves out of it. Hopefully this year the younger guys, myself included, will take it a little more in stride and make a better run at it."
Asked what made him feel better about the Orioles' chances, Mussina thought for a moment and then replied: "[Harold] Baines, [Mike] Pagliarulo, [Rick] Sutcliffe again, Cal [Ripken] -- the guys that have been there.
"There are not many guys in this clubhouse who've had a chance to run out on the field and celebrate [a division title]," said Mussina. "Those guys have."
Any thoughts the Orioles had about a division title were remote as recently as nine days ago. They had lost two in a row to the Texas Rangers, who were talking of entering a division race at the same time the Orioles appeared to be playing their way out of one.
At different points on the just concluded road trip, the Orioles were in fifth place (last Sunday) and six games out of first (last Monday). The seven-game winning streak not only pushed the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox a comfortable distance behind them, it put the Orioles back in a position to determine their own fate.
"Let's give those guys in uniform out there a lot of credit," said manager Johnny Oates, who usually disdains any discussion of the team's standing. "Things weren't looking too good after those two games in Texas.
"We weren't playing very well, we weren't hitting, it was hot and we were dragging. But [Jamie] Moyer pitched a great game and got us going again.
"Now we're close enough to make it exciting. We've reached the point where this homestand should be interesting," said Oates.
If the Orioles have any advantage at this point, it is a twofold one involving their home park at Camden Yards, where they will play 16 of the last 25 games.
After winning nine of their first 10, the Orioles finished only 43-38 at home in 1992. So far this year they are 41-24 (the second-best home mark in the AL behind the Yankees' 46-26) and have gone 31-12 since June 4.
The Yankees, who are 32-34 on the road, have only nine more home games. The Blue Jays, with the best road record (37-32) of the three teams, have 12 games left at home. The Orioles, who have a nine-game road trip to Boston, Milwaukee and Cleveland after this homestand, finish with their last 10 at Camden Yards -- the final seven against the Yankees (3) and Blue Jays (4).
At this point, however, it is far more important for the Orioles to stay focused on the team at hand. The Seattle Mariners, who open a three-game series tonight, are playing better than they have in three years. They have just completed an 8-3 homestand that included winning three of four from the Blue Jays, who lost five of seven to the Mariners over a 10-day period.
The Orioles say it won't be difficult staying focused on the task at hand.
"It will be very easy for me," said Oates. "This [the series with the Mariners] should be a great matchup."
Second baseman Harold Reynolds, a former Mariner, echoes his manager. "They have a lot of exciting players and real good pitching," he said, after going 3-for-5 with three RBI yesterday. "And those guys don't quit."
The Orioles cannot afford to look ahead, but neither can they afford to lose ground before their head-to-head matchups with the Yankees and Blue Jays in the season's final week. They cannot afford a repeat of last year, when they lost eight of 11 after returning from the successful West Coast trip.
A little more than a week ago, the Orioles had no reasonable expectations of being where they are, but seven-game winning streaks on the road can work wonders. Now they are home, hoping they can continue the home-field magic they've enjoyed for the past three months.
Orioles first: Anderson homered to right-center on 0-1 count. McLemore flied to left fielder Aldrete. Devereaux grounded to shortstop Bordick. Baines walked. Ripken singled to left, Baines to second. Pagliarulo lined to left fielder Aldrete. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 2 left on. Orioles 1, Athletics 0.
Orioles second: Hoiles homered to left on 3-1 count. Segui walked. Reynolds singled toward third, Segui to second. Anderson sacrificed, first baseman Armas to second baseman Gates, Segui to third, Reynolds to second. McLemore grounded to first baseman Armas. Devereaux singled to right, Segui and Reynolds scored. Baines grounded to first baseman Armas. 3 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 4, Athletics 0.
Orioles third: Ripken popped to shortstop Bordick. Pagliarulo grounded to second baseman Gates. Hoiles walked. Segui doubled down the left-field line, Hoiles to third. Reynolds doubled to right-center, Hoiles and Segui scored. Anderson singled to center, Reynolds scored. McLemore struck out. 3 runs, 3 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 7, Athletics 0.
Orioles fourth:Downs pitching. Helfand catching. Devereaux grounded to shortstop Bordick. Baines doubled to center. Ripken doubled to right, Baines scored. Pagliarulo grounded to second baseman Gates, Ripken to third. Hoiles struck out. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 8, Athletics 0.
Orioles seventh: Horsman pitching. Lydy to right field. Pagliarulo singled to right. Hoiles singled to right-center, Pagliarulo to second. Segui popped to second baseman Gates. Reynolds singled to left, Pagliarulo scored,Hoiles to second. Anderson singled to left, Hoiles to third, Reynolds to second. McLemore struck out. Devereaux struck out. 1 run, 4 hits, 0 errors, 3 left on. Orioles 9, Athletics 0.
Athletics seventh: Gates grounded to second baseman Reynolds. Aldrete grounded to shortstop Ripken. Paquette homered to right on 2-2 count. Armas grounded to third baseman Pagliarulo. 1 run, 1 hit, 0 errors, 0 left on. Orioles 9, Athletics 1.
Athletics eighth:Helfand struck out. Brosius doubled to left. Browne struck out. Lydy singled to center, Brosius scored. Neel flied to left fielder Anderson. 1 run, 2 hits, 0 errors, 1 left on. Orioles 9, Athletics 2.
AL EAST RACE
Team ... ... ... W ... ... L ... ... ... Pct. ... ... GB ... ... Streak
Toronto ... ... 78 ... ... 60 .. ... ... .565 ... ... -- ... ... Lost 3
New York .. ... 78 ... ... 60 .. ... ... .565 ... ... -- ... ... Won 2
Orioles ... ... 75 ... ... 62 .. ... ... .547 ... ... 2 1/2 ... Won 7
Orioles 9, Oakland 2
New York 7, Cleveland 2
California 5, Toronto 1
Site: Oriole Park at Camden Yards
Mariners starter: Dave Fleming (10-2, 4.20)
Orioles starter: Ben McDonald (10-11, 3.37)
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
Tickets: Scattered singles remain, not including 275 standing-room tickets that go on sale when the gates open.
AL EAST STRETCH RUN
The rest of the regular-season schedule among the American League East contenders, with asterisk denoting a sub-.500 team and (R) denoting a road series:
Dates ... ... ... ... ... ... ... Opponent
Sept. 6-8 ... ... ... ... ... ... Seattle
Sept. 10-12 .. .. ... ... ... ... Oakland*
Sept. 13-15 .. .. ... ... ... ... Boston (R)
Sept. 17-19 .. .. ... ... ... ... Milwaukee*(R)
Sept. 20-22 .. .. ... ... ... ... Cleveland*(R)
Sept. 24-26 .. .. ... ... ... ... Detroit
Sept. 27-29 .. .. ... ... ... ... New York
Sept. 30-Oct. 3 .. .. ... ... ... Toronto
Sept. 7-9 ... ... ... ... ... ... Oakland*
Sept. 10-12 .. .. ... ... ... ... California*
Sept. 14-15 .. .. ... ... ... ... Detroit (R)
Sept. 17-19 .. .. ... ... ... ... Minnesota* (R)
Sept. 21-23 .. .. ... ... ... ... Boston
Sept. 24-26 .. .. ... ... ... ... New York
Sept. 27-29 .. .. ... ... ... ... Milwaukee*
Sept. 30-Oct. 3 .. .. ... ... ... ... Orioles (R)
Sept. 6-8 ... ... ... ... ... ... Texas (R)
Sept. 10-12 .. .. ... ... ... ... Kansas City (R)
Sept. 13-15 .. .. ... ... ... ... Milwaukee*(R)
Sept. 16-19 .. .. ... ... ... ... Boston
Sept. 21-22 .. .. ... ... ... ... Minnesota*
Sept. 24-26 .. .. ... ... ... ... Toronto (R)
Sept. 27-29 .. .. ... ... ... ... Orioles (R)
Oct. 1-Oct. 3 .. .. ... ... .. .. Detroit