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Oates is on threshold, as O's again fall from it


If ever a day symbolized a season, Sunday was it. The New York Yankees staged a ninth-inning comeback. The Orioles blew a six-run lead. The Yankees ended their West Coast trip 10-1. The Orioles finished 4-5.

For the Orioles, the pattern was no different than it has been all season, no different than it has been for the past three years. They are forever on the threshold. They rise to a certain level, then sink at the moment of truth.

Another such moment awaits them today, when they play a day-night doubleheader to open a four-game series against Cleveland. The Orioles trail the Indians by two games in the wild-card race. The doubleheader is big. The entire series is big.

And recent history suggests the Orioles will wilt.

Two years ago, they were a half-game out of first place on Sept. 5, then went 8-13. Last season, they were a half-game out on Sept. 9, then went 8-14. This season, they were a half-game out on July 15, and now this.

It isn't necessarily Johnny Oates' fault -- the offense sputtered in '92, injuries struck in '93, the bullpen is fading in '94. But ultimately, the manager will be held responsible, because Peter Angelos won't be satisfied by another near-miss.

This is a huge series for Oates. The calendar says July, but with the strike coming, everyone knows it might be September. Oates himself has said he wants the Orioles to be in playoff position by Aug. 15,just in case.

That's an entirely realistic goal -- a sweep today, and the Orioles will be tied with the Indians for the wild-card spot. Then again, they lost five games in the AL East standings in a span of nine days. Maybe they're just not ready to win.

The Toronto Blue Jays were like that once. Heck, the Yankees were like that last season. Eighteen times, they were tied for first place, but not once did they gain sole possession. No wonder they've grown so protective of the division lead.

Think this trip was bad? Last year, the Yankees' second West Coast trip was even worse. They began trailing Toronto by two games, and the Blue Jays proceeded to go 1-9. The first-place invitation was all but engraved. The Yankees RSVP'd by going 2-8.

This time, the Yankees came from behind five times on the West Coast -- three times in the ninth inning. They've developed a stunning resolve, a championship air, a killer instinct. The Orioles'talent is comparable. But the Orioles don't carry the same aura.

Oh, they finally beat up on the Blue Jays this season, but it turned out those weren't the same Blue Jays (at least not until recently). Against the three teams they're competing with for playoff spots -- the Yankees, the Indians and the Chicago White Sox -- the Orioles are a dismal 7-12.

Their most memorable victory this season came on Jeffrey Hammonds' ninth-inning homer against Oakland on July 9. The next day was the final game before the All-Star break. The Orioles came within two outs of first place, but never got closer.

The game-winning homer Lee Smith allowed to Mark McGwire didn't seem especially meaningful at the time, but in a sense, the Orioles still haven't recovered. Don't blame the collapse of the Kingdome roof -- the bullpen collapsed first.

On Sunday, it appeared the Orioles would pull back within 3 1/2 games, and just like that, the deficit went to 5 1/2 . Pretty soon, it might be 10 1/2 . Mike Mussina and Ben McDonald keep getting nagging injuries. Sid Fernandez keeps giving up home runs.

Always something, isn't it?

Maybe this is just a bullpen slump -- in six of their past seven losses, the Orioles have blown leads in the sixth inning or later. Smith was bound to struggle at some point. So was Mark Eichhorn. These things happen over the course of 162 games.

Then again, maybe a team with so many new players needs another season to acquire a championship identity. It took the Blue Jays years to find the right chemistry. The Orioles are close-knit, but it takes more than that. Fernandez, for example, obviously needs more time to adjust to the American League.

The problem is, there isn't time -- not in a season threatened by a work stoppage, not in a game where the pay structure leads to annual roster overhauls, not with an owner who spent tens of millions in an effort to win right away.

The Orioles are 31-30 in September the past two seasons, and now it might be September again. Angelos doesn't want to hear the history. He doesn't want to hear excuses. And he doesn't want to hear that his high-priced players aren't good enough.

This is a huge series for the Orioles.

A huge series for Johnny Oates.

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