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Real test will come after the All-Star break


As unlikely as it seemed at the time, Phil Regan almost got his wish.

With his rotation wrecked by injuries and ineffectiveness and his offense defused by slumps, the Orioles manager said that he'd like to get within four or five games of the division-leading Boston Red Sox by the All-Star break. With the Orioles close to the bottom of the American League Eastern Division, that sounded like a dream.

The Orioles fell short of Regan's goal, but, after the four-game sweep of the White Sox in Chicago, they may have accomplished something even more significant. They are almost as close to the first-place Red Sox (six games) as they are to the last-place Toronto Blue Jays (5 1/2 ).

There is reason for optimism, though it must be tempered with a -- of reality.

The Orioles have won 10 of their past 14 with two of their starters (Kevin Brown and Ben McDonald) on the disabled list. They also have endured a slump by Chris Hoiles that, until this weekend, encompassed most of the season. Cal Ripken, despite respectable numbers, has yet to have a hot streak; Brady Anderson, also with decent numbers, has been on a roller-coaster ride; Jeffrey Hammonds has yet to get untracked; and even Rafael Palmeiro has been in a funk for the past week.

All things considered, the Orioles are not in a bad position. Even after the acquisition of Rick Aguilera, the Red Sox still have to prove they're capable of making the long haul. And the New York Yankees, also with injury problems, have struggled even more than the Orioles.

Now comes the reality check.

The 11-4 roll the Orioles take into the All-Star break came against four teams (Milwaukee, Toronto, Minnesota and Chicago) that are a collective 50 games below .500. That makes it difficult to gauge the improvement or balance the optimism with realism.

After the All-Star break, the Orioles will play 12 of their next 14 games against Kansas City and Texas, two teams that have been consistently over .500, though the Royals have slipped of late.

They will be significant games because the Orioles can expect to see better pitching, while getting their starting rotation back in gear. And it's not too early to start thinking about the wild-card postseason era.

The Rangers and California Angels are tied for first place in the AL West -- and either would currently qualify for postseason play as a wild card. The Orioles are a half-game closer to those teams than they are to the Red Sox.

McDonald and Brown are expected to return to the rotation next weekend. The addition of Scott Erickson gives Regan five starters capable of pitching consistently into the late innings. And with Hoiles stepping up, the offense should be stronger in the second half.

Beginning with a four-game series against Kansas City on Thursday, the Orioles will play 17 of their next 24 games at Camden Yards. That will provide as much of an opportunity as a test.

Which could make the next four weeks the most important of the year.

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