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Losses mount, but O's see no repeat of 2002 free fall

Orioles manager Mike Hargrove knows what you're thinking.

Seven straight losses. Injuries wrecking the lineup. A season-ending schedule so brutal it should be rated NC-17.

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"I don't think the bottom's falling out," Hargrove said. "I know everybody's sitting there saying, 'At about this time last year, the team went 4-32.' That was a completely different scenario last year than it is this year."

A year ago, the Orioles were sitting at .500 on Aug. 23, before they went through the worst 36-game finish in modern major league history. Five months of progress gave way to five weeks of futility: 10 straight losses, one win, eight straight losses, a 3-2 stretch and 12 more losses.

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The schedule is just as tough this year, if not tougher, and the stakes are even higher with Hargrove and his staff in the final year of their contracts.

Another collapse could cost a lot of people their jobs, and anyone who lived through 4-32 couldn't help but note the similarities last week.

Last year's team weathered its share of injuries before No. 3 hitter Gary Matthews went down with what turned out to be a season-ending wrist injury on Aug. 23. That night, the Orioles improved their record to 63-63, but as second baseman Jerry Hairston later said, Matthews' injury was the straw that broke the camel's back.

With a skeleton lineup, the Orioles went 1-9 against Toronto, 1-5 against Texas, 0-6 against Anaheim, 2-5 against Boston and 0-7 against the New York Yankees.

This is why the Orioles winced when Jeff Conine went down with bursitis in his right biceps 10 days ago. Before that, they were 56-58, and they spent two straight weekends putting Red Sox fans into fits of depression.

It was enough to inspire Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy to write, "Memo to the Nation: The Orioles don't stink anymore."

But without Conine for this latest stretch, the Orioles are 1-8.

Conine, who has quietly emerged as the team's leader, left the clubhouse Sunday confident he'd be back in the lineup by tomorrow night. Melvin Mora, who hasn't played all month because of a sore right hand, had a full session of batting practice Saturday.

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So the Orioles could have Mora's .420 on-base percentage and Conine's 76 RBIs back in the same lineup together by this weekend. Both have played pivotal roles in the team's offensive resurgence this season.

"We can see the light at the end of the tunnel," right fielder Jay Gibbons said. "We definitely need them back."

Healthy or not, the Orioles have a huge challenge in front of them. Their remaining 39 games include 11 against the Yankees, seven against Boston, six against Oakland, six against Seattle, six against Toronto and three against Tampa Bay.

The Devil Rays, who return to Camden Yards tonight, turned things upside down for the Orioles last week with a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field. Then the Yankees came to Baltimore and swept four, including three nail-biters determined after the sixth inning and Mike Mussina's 8-0 cakewalk on Sunday.

Anyone wondering about the Orioles' psyche could take solace in something Yankees manager Joe Torre said before leaving town. Asked about the sweep, he said: "It's great, especially the way this ballclub has played us. They play us very tough. They have young kids that don't really care that we're the Yankees. They go out there and play very hard, and they are very tough to get out on a regular basis."

Orioles hitting coach Terry Crowley spent the weekend tortured by the losses but thrilled by a string of clutch at-bats by some of his most inexperienced hitters: Luis Matos' game-tying home run off Yankees closer Mariano Rivera on Saturday, Jack Cust's homer off Rivera on Friday and all the adventures of Larry Bigbie.

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On Thursday, Bigbie had a potential go-ahead double taken away by a spectacular, wall-crashing catch by Hideki Matsui. On Friday, Bigbie hit a go-ahead double in the eighth inning before Orioles closer Jorge Julio gave up a three-run homer to Aaron Boone in the ninth. Then, on Saturday, Bigbie hit a potential game-tying double in the 12th inning that ended with Cust's doing a belly flop 10 yards from home plate.

"Forget that we lost [Saturday] and the day before that and the day before that," Crowley said. "In all these games, there were winning performances that - looking down the road - are the kind of performances that can get a team to the World Series.

"Some of the young players have stepped up and gotten big hits for us off top-notch pitchers. In the past, that only came from the veteran-type players, but now we have young players doing it, and this is how you build a winning franchise.

"We can't wait for Tony [Batista] and [Conine] and David Segui to do it all the time. We need everybody to contribute."

So maybe progress is being made, but can an inexperienced team recover from three gut-wrenching losses to the Yankees?

"I think, if anything, it's really picked us up a little bit," Bigbie said.

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"Knowing that the lineup we have out there is very young compared to the opposing team and knowing that we've been in every game, if anything, it gives us more hope that things are hopefully getting better."

No repeat?

The Orioles face a formidable schedule to finish the season. A look at how they fared against each opponent in the final 36 games in 2002 and how they have done so far this year against the teams they face to finish 2003:

'02 opp. W-L '03 opp. W-L

Toronto 1-9 T. Bay 6-10

Texas 1-5 Yankees 2-6

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Anaheim 0-6 Oakland 0-3

Boston 2-5 Seattle 2-1

Yankees 0-7 Boston 7-5

............. ..... ....... Toronto 6-7

Totals 4-32 Totals 23-32


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