Unorthodox surge lifts Orioles


CHICAGO -- Three wins in three nights at Comiskey Park. Five wins in a row on the road. Thirteen wins in their past 20 games.

Why, glory be: The Orioles are almost starting to play up to their $42 million payroll.

"I think things are coming together for real," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said after last night's 5-2 win over the Chicago White Sox. "Good pitching, good defense, solid hitting. Nothing extraordinary. Just good baseball."

And you were starting to believe it wasn't going to happen. Shame on you. Didn't you know Jamie Moyer and Rick Krivda were starting the first two games here?

Yes, it has been a highly unorthodox surge; the club didn't get hot until after two of its top three starters went on the disabled list. Makes about as much sense as raising ticket prices in the year after a strike.

But as someone profound -- I think it was Floyd Rayford -- once said, sometimes baseball just doesn't make sense.

"Weird game, man," Palmeiro said.

Indeed. Losing Kevin Brown and Ben McDonald to injuries figured to doom the Orioles to the bottom of the AL East.

But after three weeks of consistent starting pitching from a cast of thousands, timely hitting (at last) and four-star stuff from the Aging Bullpen, the club doesn't want the All-Star break to begin tomorrow.

"I'd prefer to keep playing, that's for sure," manager Phil Regan said. "We're playing our best ball of the season."

Regan no doubt would prefer to stay here forever and play the grumpy, underachieving White Sox. But as much as the Sox are a perfect opponent right now, the Orioles have done more to weigh the first three games of this series in their favor. They have played errorless ball, yielded only four runs in 27 innings and let Chris Hoiles' finally hot bat carry them.

What has finally gone right with this team? One obvious explanation is that the players finally are learning each other's names. Maybe you don't understand just how much the front office tore up the roster and started over this year. Of the 30 players currently in uniform or on the disabled list, only 13 were with the club regularly a year ago.

There's a new center fielder, a new second baseman, a new third baseman, a new backup catcher, two new starting pitchers, a new closer, three new set-up men, a new manager, new coaches . . . a new team, basically.

"It feels like we're just starting to get to know each other," center fielder Curtis Goodwin said.

But the truth is that familiarity isn't nearly as important as starting pitching.

The Orioles weren't getting much from their rotation as of three weeks ago. Mike Mussina was in his worst funk ever. Brown had lost five straight decisions. McDonald had two wins. It was no coincidence that the club was losing.

But the past three weeks have been much better. Mussina, returning to All-Star form, has won four straight starts. Moyer, out of nowhere and desperately needed, has won three straight starts. And the club squeezed four wins out of games started by rookies Scott Klingenbeck, John DeSilva and Krivda.

Check out this amazing but true fact: In the 16 games since McDonald and Brown went down, Orioles starters have a 3.40 ERA, almost two points lower than the starters' collective ERA before McDonald and Brown went down (5.30).

Makes about as much sense as leaving Jim Abbott in to pitch to Hoiles in the ninth inning of a tie game. (Sox manager Terry Bevington did Friday night even though Abbott was clearly tiring and Hoiles has a history of pounding Abbott; Abbott was in tears after Hoiles' game-winning homer.)

Of course, the starters don't deserve all the credit. The bullpen gets some, too. They're all new to the club this year and they're certainly the sunshine boys -- closer Doug Jones and Jesse Orosco are 38, Terry Clark is 34, Mark Lee is about to turn 31 -- but they've been dependable, unlike Alan Mills and Brad Pennington.

"We've improved the club in a lot of areas since the season began," Regan said. "The bullpen, obviously. We also found a bona fide center fielder in Goodwin, and a second baseman in Manny Alexander. Our speed is much better than a month ago. Our whole club is much better than a month ago."

There are still numerous ifs to resolve after the All-Star break. The starting pitching won't last the rest of the season without major contributions from McDonald and Brown. Hoiles, just emerging from his season-long slump, needs to keep going. And Jeff Manto has to come back from the disabled list still able to hit homers and drive in runs.

"Those four players are keys for us," Regan said. "How we do in the second half could depend a lot on them. But, hey, Boston has a lot of ifs, too."

The Orioles are still six games behind the Red Sox, which shows how deep a hole they dug, but six games is as close as the Orioles have been in weeks. And here is a fact: six games out in July means nothing.

"That can easily be overcome," Regan said, "especially if we keep playing like we've been playing."

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