Are they merely playing good ball, or might these Orioles actually be a good team?
An encouraging seven-inning performance by starting pitcher Sidney Ponson, a flawless outing from his defense and an opportunistic one by a batting order that now features several positive streaks provided the Orioles with their fifth straight win before an announced crowd of 39,426. Once seven games below break-even, the Orioles now find themselves only a half game out of third place and 3 1/2 off the division lead.
By reaching .500 for the first time since April 11, they also assured themselves of their first eight-win homestand since 1993. Not bad for a team universally buried in March and mocked in April.
"I think we feel we should have been playing like this from the beginning," said shortstop Mike Bordick, who turned one of the Orioles' three double plays. "Unfortunately, the offense wasn't there. While we've been having this success, there's been a combination of pitching and offense. There's no telling where we would be if we'd hit the first month."
Only growing uncertainty surrounding starting pitcher Pat Hentgen's painful right elbow represents a damper. Hentgen will be examined this week in Birmingham, Ala., by orthopedist Dr. James Andrews after results of a magnetic resonance imaging proved inconclusive, according to club officials.
Manager Mike Hargrove all but guaranteed that Hentgen won't make his next scheduled start Friday in Oakland. On Thursday, Hargrove said his concern would grow appreciably if Hentgen wasn't ready to leave the disabled list as scheduled June 1.
Having contributed by hitting in 10 of 12 games, second baseman Jerry Hairston believes the Orioles are playing well simply because they finally have a well lineup. Their resuscitation coincides with David Segui's return from the disabled list on May 15, the first day of the 8-2 homestand that ends this afternoon against the Rangers.
"We lost Albert Belle and David Segui in spring training. That's 50 home runs and 250 RBIs," Hairston said. "Cal [Ripken] has gotten healthy. The first six weeks of the season were like spring training for him. We had to adjust without those guys. We don't have Albert, but David has made a big difference. We know we can score now."
The Orioles' .244 team average - still last in the American League - remains skewed by a disastrous start that had them batting only .227 on May 11. They are batting .280 with 99 runs in their last 15 games. Yesterday marked only the third game of that stretch that they failed to score at least five runs. They rank fourth in the league in defense while the bullpen is 10-6 with 13 saves compared to the same juncture last season when it was 10-11 with more than twice as many blown saves (13) as conversions (six). They are 18-0 when leading after seven innings.
B. J. Ryan and Mike Trombley secured yesterday's final six outs, Ryan cutting through the heart of the Rangers' lineup before Trombley gained his fourth save on pinch hitter Andres Galarraga's double play.
"From the seventh inning on, we feel the game belongs to us. We have guys who match up well on batters," Ryan said.
The Orioles will attempt to cap a series sweep today in slender rookie Josh Towers' first major-league start. If in search of omens, the Orioles have won all three Monday games this season.
Once more the last-place Rangers showed they are nothing close to a good team. While the Orioles played seamless defense, the Rangers sabotaged themselves with an unturned double play, a wild pitch and a dropped fly ball. The Orioles used all of them for their runs. Meanwhile, at 17-31 the Rangers have equaled their second-worst start in franchise history.
"They're pretty much the team I left last season," said Segui, who split the year between Texas and Cleveland. "They hit the ball extremely well but have trouble with pitching and defense. Nothing's really changed."
The Orioles jumped Rangers starter Ryan Glynn (1-4) for two first-inning runs after second baseman Michael Young inexplicably held onto the relay on Bordick's potential double-play grounder. Chris Richard immediately took advantage with a double low off the right-field fence to score Bordick.
Glynn then hurt himself by bouncing a pitch to the screen and giving Richard third base. Left fielder Jeff Conine then converted the opportunity with a sacrifice fly.
After the Rangers pulled within 2-1 in the third inning, the Orioles used right fielder Ruben Mateo's two-out error in the bottom of the inning to start a rally that culminated in Ripken's opposite-field RBI single.
What appeared to be Segui's inning-ending fly ball to the warning track became an adventure when Mateo reacted poorly to an inward wind. Also believing that center fielder Gabe Kapler was approaching, Mateo glanced to his right before looking back for the ball. He lunged late but only mangled the play. A walk of Greg Myers preceded Ripken extending his hitting streak to six games.
"In games like this, small mistakes have a tendency to haunt you," Hargrove said. "The first game we didn't make a couple plays that allowed them to get back into it. ... I guess it's fairly obvious we took advantage of some opportunities early today."
"People say the Yankees are lucky because they get a lot of breaks. They get all the calls. Other teams make errors. That kind of stuff. But unless you take advantage of them, they're not breaks; they're nothing," said Conine, now riding an 11-game hitting streak that has jacked his average to .330. "In order for you to get a break, you have to make a pitch, get an out or get the key hit. They just don't happen. We're doing that now."
Ponson (2-3) pitched seven eventful innings. He allowed seven hits and a walk but checked the dangerous middle of the Rangers' lineup to Ivan Rodriguez's infield single, Alex Rodriguez's two-out RBI single in the third inning and Kapler's leadoff double in the fourth.
However, unlike Glynn, he benefited from sound defensive support. The Rangers pushed only two runners to third base and failed to reach scoring position after the fourth inning.
If not for a 1:05 rain delay that interrupted the bottom of the seventh inning, Hargrove would have allowed Ponson to continue. He emerged 2-0 with a 3.22 ERA in four starts since returning from the disabled list.
"I wanted to finish the game but the rain got in the way," Ponson said. "It's great to see our starters, our relievers and our offense all doing the job. We are in the same boat, so you keep riding it and see how far it takes you."
Hargrove has reminded his team that .500 is only a road marker, not a destination. Until recently, it was a reminder few outside their clubhouse believed necessary.
Opponent: Texas Rangers
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 1:35 p.m.
TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Rangers' Kenny Rogers (3-3, 5.97) vs. Orioles' Josh Towers (1-1, 5.19)