WITH NINE of their next 13 games against the Yankees and Red Sox starting tomorrow, the Orioles are about to find out how they compare with their division rivals as the 2005 season reaches its halfway point.
But it's a mistake to put too much emphasis on this two-week stretch of games leading up to the All-Star break.
Sure, the Orioles need to hold their own at least and reach the break where they are now, in the middle of things in the American League East, if not on top. A losing streak could be calamitous.
But the long haul is what matters, not this midseason checkpoint.
If the Orioles are going to pull off their long-odds goal of knocking at least one of their big-spending rivals out of the playoffs, they'll have to play well through July, August and September, not just over the next two weeks.
They'll have to sustain the same high standard they have met through the first half of the season, and at the risk of sounding like an alarmist, they have little room for a letdown.
They were on a pace to win 95 games heading into the series in Atlanta, and it's probably going to take that many wins to capture the division.
The standard that must be met is high, really high. To hang with the best teams in baseball, you have to keep winning for six months.
A team can't afford many blips like the one the Orioles experienced in Toronto, losing three of four somewhat listlessly. Look what happened because of that one blip -- the Red Sox sliced away almost all of the Orioles' division lead.
The defending World Series champs seem to be finding their form despite ongoing pitching issues that have them ranked ahead of just two American League teams in ERA. You can be sure that they're going to make moves to get better, and that they're going to be formidable to the end.
The up-and-down Yankees are harder to figure, a team with flaws (starting pitching, bullpen, age) that are beginning to look permanently problematic, much to the delight of the rest of baseball.
But it's hard to imagine them just stumbling along for the rest of the season at the same dull, 83-win pace they were on heading into Friday.
As enjoyable as it might be to envision their finishing a $200 million season without waking up, I wouldn't bet on it happening.
The good news for the Orioles is that neither rival appears to be one of those unbeatable teams that occasionally comes along. The Yankees need to go 63-25 in their remaining games to reach 100 wins. That's a .716 winning percentage. Sorry, not going to happen.
The Red Sox need to go 57-32 to get to 100 -- a more realistic possibility but still tough.
The Orioles aren't shooting for 100 but they do appear headed for their first winning record since 1997, making this season a success regardless of what happens between now and October.
First things first: Even if they don't hold on, they're competitive again, and that's a lot better than battling it out with Tampa Bay for fourth.
Of course, their winning record is attributable primarily to their fast start, and they have since cooled off, winning 22 of their past 45 games.
I buy into the theory that their slowdown has been due largely to injuries, which have really piled up. Mediocre teams often hide behind the injury excuse, but the Orioles have lost essential players for extended periods, and that has inevitably had a chilling effect.
But the anticipated, eventual return of starting pitcher Erik Bedard shouldn't keep them from going out and trading for another quality starter, as there's no guarantee Bedard will come back pitching as effectively as he was before going on the disabled list.
One way or another, the starting rotation is going to need an infusion of dependability if the Orioles are going to make a run.
Meanwhile, the return of catcher Javy Lopez should help the sagging offense (eighth in the AL in runs over the past month) and possibly help Sammy Sosa see a few better pitches to hit. Not that Sosa can hit anything right now.
The Orioles' short-term goal should be to hold their own without Bedard and Lopez in these upcoming series, and then, as if that isn't tough enough, gather themselves for a second-half run at 95 wins -- a daunting challenge in the big-time company they're keeping, but not impossible.
Palmeiro's quest for 3,000 hits
Yesterday: Went 1-for-5 with a single vs. Braves
Today: 1:05 p.m., vs. Braves (Smoltz 7-5)