At top of stretch, Orioles hit stride Blue Jays starting to appear winded in run for AL East


It all seemed so unlikely a week or so ago, but the Orioles suddenly are within sight of the prize. The tumblers seem to be falling in place at just the right time, thanks to a 9-1 run that has put them on the threshold of a dream.

There are 22 games left, and the schedule looks favorable. Sure, the Orioles are a streaky team that could start streaking in another direction any day, but they appear to be in perfect position to make a strong run at the American League East title.

The events of the past few days have only strengthened that notion, from the decision to release beleaguered first baseman Glenn Davis to the trade for pennant-stretch veteran Lonnie Smith to the three tough losses suffered by the first-place Toronto Blue Jays on Tuesday, Wednesday and last night.

"A lot of things are going our way right now," said pitcher Ben McDonald, who has been one of the architects of the late-season comeback. "We're getting clutch hitting and good pitching. We've been a streaky team, but hopefully we can end this thing real strong. Toronto is not playing well right now, so we need to take advantage of every game."

The next 12 games will be crucial. The Orioles open a three-game series tonight against the Oakland Athletics, who delivered the three stunning defeats to the Blue Jays, but who also have lost 15 of their past 19 games. Then comes a nine-game road trip that includes series against the reeling Boston Red Sox, who have lost seven of their past 10, the Milwaukee Brewers, who own the worst record in the AL East, and the Cleveland Indians, who have lost seven of 10 to the Orioles this year.

What more can a contending club ask for? The Orioles play four teams against whom they are a combined 27-12 this year before coming home to close out the season with a 10-game stand that includes seven games against the two teams in front of them.

"Things definitely look good right now," first baseman David Segui said. "Hopefully, this run of bad luck for [Toronto] and good luck for us will keep up for a while. Hopefully, we can get ahead so we won't have to worry about who beat who.

"Everybody's confidence is soaring right now, but there's still a long way to go. You don't want to get carried away."

The fans certainly do. They went wild at Camden Yards every time something favorable registered on the out-of-town scoreboard. The pennant chase is officially on, and the Orioles are in perfect position to make their move.

The acquisition of Smith could turn out to be pivotal, because it gives the club a veteran hitter who has proven that he can handle pennant-race pressure. He has appeared in 63 postseason games during his 14-year career. Though he won't be eligible for postseason play with the Orioles, that experience could play very large during the final weeks of the regular season.

"His experience will really pay off," manager Johnny Oates said. "From what I've been told, it will pay off even if he doesn't go to the plate, because of his presence in the clubhouse."

The Orioles have not made the splashy acquisitions that have characterized the Blue Jays' recent late-season runs, but they have picked up two players this year who know what to do when the season is on the line. The club earlier acquired veteran third baseman Mike Pagliarulo, who was on the 1991 Minnesota Twins World Series championship club, and he has played a big role in the club's recent turnaround.

The presence of Pagliarulo, Smith and postseason veterans Harold Baines and Rick Sutcliffe should steady an otherwise youthful Orioles club.

"If I was going to do something, I'd want somebody who has been there before," said Pagliarulo. "I don't know if you could prove it on paper as far as those things working out, but this organization has a plan. They have a good chance of doing it. If you have players who have been through it, it might make it a little easier.

"Sometimes, you don't know how guys are going to act at crunch time. There are some guys who act real good, and [Smith] is one of them."

Smith has appeared in five World Series for four different teams. He went down the stretch with the pennant-winning Atlanta Braves the past two years.

"From playing against him, he's a guy who can hit in all situations," veteran second baseman Harold Reynolds said. "He's a guy who can come off the bench and hit. He's always excelled in the playoffs and World Series. Pressure doesn't bother him, so he's a great addition."

The Orioles solved a problem with the acquisition of Smith, and they solved another with the release of Davis, whose comeback attempt had become a preoccupation of the wrong kind at the wrong time. But most of Davis' teammates denied that the situation had become a distraction.

"I don't think so, because I think we're so focused on the pennant race right now," Reynolds said. "For Glenn, it's a good thing, because he needs a fresh start. He wasn't going to play here, so it wasn't like we lost a player."

In another move that could pay off down the stretch, Oates rearranged the pitching rotation so that Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Jamie Moyer will start 14 of the final 22 games. During the final homestand, Mussina and McDonald will start the first two games against New York and the last two against Toronto.

Despite all the positive developments of the past few days, the Orioles still will have to overcome one major personnel loss if they are to win the division title. Reliever Gregg Olson remains on the sidelines with a sore elbow at a time when a veteran closer could mean everything to a contending team.

There still is the possibility that he will return before the end of the season, but Oates has resigned himself to using his three setup men -- Alan Mills, Todd Frohwirth and Jim Poole -- to hold the late innings together the rest of the way.

If it is any consolation, the Orioles aren't the only team having some pitching problems. Inconsistent pitching is becoming a major stumbling block for the Blue Jays, who are struggling with a six-game losing streak, including the past three to the AL West last-place Athletics.

The second-place New York Yankees also have been in a slump, losing seven of 10 games at a time when they were in perfect position to take control of the division race.

The scoreboard will be lighted up again tonight, and everyone -- in the stands and in the dugout -- will be watching.

"Definitely," center fielder Mike Devereaux said. "You see the scores and the fans going crazy. It's exciting. You want to be excited at this time of year. That's what it's all about."

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