Around this time last year, the club was 6-16 and enduring daily speculation regarding Ray Miller's job status. Miller made it through the season. The Orioles barely did, staggering to the finish line while counting their blessings that Tampa Bay resided in the same division, freeing them of the cellar.
They wake up this morning in second place, 1 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees. Mike Mussina avoided being shut out for the month. The rotation avoided total collapse without its No. 2 starter. The right side of the infield avoided injuries. Cal Ripken avoided a recurrence of the back problems that twice drove him to the disabled list last season.
Bring on May.
"I think we're playing good baseball. It's been a positive month," said catcher Charles Johnson. "We have a lot of things to build on."
The Orioles have won six of eight series. Last year, they didn't win their first series until taking two of three from Minnesota April 30 to May 2. But changes are being noticed beyond the numbers.
"Things here are much better," Johnson said. "Last year it seemed we didn't have any idea how the season would go for us. We got off to a rough start and there were a lot of things going on as far as Ray and not knowing if he was going to be here or not. I think the locker room is really settled this year and it's given us a chance to just relax and try to play good baseball."
The largest regular-season crowd in Camden Yards history, 48,563, was treated to a pre-game ceremony honoring Ripken's 3,000th career hit. They witnessed Pat Rapp's first loss as an Oriole, and the club's second at home in 11 games, leaving it 14-10 as the calendar turns.
Manager Mike Hargrove allowed himself a few moments to reflect on the expectations after Scott Erickson was diagnosed with bone chips in his elbow and closer Mike Timlin with a torn abdominal muscle. And after projected No. 3 starter Jason Johnson was shipped to the minors, leaving the back end of the rotation in the hands of two pitchers -- Calvin Maduro and Jose Mercedes -- who didn't sniff the majors last season.
"With the injuries we've had and the things we've had to do, had we been asked what record would you take, I think we'd be happy with what we have so far," Hargrove said. "The people we've asked to come in and adjust to what's going on have done a tremendous job. The guys have picked each other up and that's what it's all about."
Rapp had done some of the hoisting by winning his first three decisions, but he left in the sixth inning yesterday with Texas ahead, 5-3, and poised to win for only the third time in 13 games. He didn't walk a batter, but threw three wild pitches in the fourth inning.
"Pat's history is he's inconsistent with his mechanics and his delivery," Hargrove said. "For whatever reason, Pat will start rushing himself, and when he does he gets all out of kilter. Then he gets it back together. When he stays mechanically sound, Pat's got great stuff. To Pat's credit, he's been better a lot more often than he's been inconsistent."
Rapp had been living a charmed life. The Orioles scored 32 runs in his first four starts, ranking him second in the American League in run support. By contrast, the Orioles have scored 16 runs in Mussina's six outings.
Appearing in another generous mood, they gave Rapp a 3-0 lead in the second inning. Jeff Conine singled, and Will Clark drew a two-out walk to extend the rally. Johnson lined an RBI single to left, and Mark Lewis -- making his first start as an Oriole -- brought in two more runs with a double.
At that point, Lewis was 2-for-2 with two doubles since being claimed off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds. He also scored the winning run in Friday's game as a pinch runner. Yesterday, he added a walk and made a diving catch of a liner by Ruben Mateo with a runner on second.
The Rangers scored once in the third inning and twice in the fourth, when Rapp threw 22 pitches. They went ahead in the sixth, bunching three doubles in the inning and chasing Rapp with two outs. Former Oriole David Segui hit his second run-scoring double of the game, and Gabe Kapler added another to bring Hargrove from the dugout.
Segui has been a menace to Rapp in the past. He's 13-for-34 (.382) with two homers lifetime against the Louisiana native.
Rapp had only one encounter with the Rangers last season, and it was obscene. Pitching in relief for the Boston Red Sox, he gave up five runs in one-third of an inning.
He was replaced by left-hander B. J. Ryan after surrendering his ninth hit, on his 95th pitch. He failed to get through six innings for the second consecutive start after doing it in his first three.
"It seemed like I was in the strike zone too much today," Rapp said. "They've got a lot of younger players and I thought I had a better chance with off-speed pitches. The good ones I threw, a lot of them dragged their bats through the zone and got doubles down the line."
The Rangers padded their lead in the seventh when Ivan Rodriguez homered off Maduro. Rodriguez added a two-run shot off Timlin in the ninth after the Orioles had gotten an RBI double from Conine in the eighth.
None of the Orioles pitchers was supported by a tight defense. Will Clark made two errors at first base, Johnson was charged with a passed ball and a few other plays weren't made that might have limited the damage.
Factor in Rapp's three wild pitches, and Hargrove said, "We were our own worst enemies today. But we've got to give the Rangers credit. They swung the bats well today."