Orioles find way to rise, but Sosa drops another notch


IT WAS JUST a coincidence that the day the Orioles broke their longest losing streak of the season, the one that had knocked them out of first place for the first time in two months, was the same day Sammy Sosa was dropped to sixth in the batting order.

No, really, coincidence.

The Orioles did look special again, though, and it had been a while since they had. Most of the night, they looked like the same unraveling, short-handed team that had stumbled through the previous week and had blown a game in the same ballpark against the same similarly unraveling Yankees.

But they gritted one out, the way they had awhile back, before the run of injuries began. They did "a couple of the little things," as Lee Mazzilli said afterward.

And a couple of big things. Like a two-run, sixth-inning home run by Rafael Palmeiro - climbing up the hits chart, climbing up the home run charts, extending his hitting streak, turning an increasingly ugly game into one close enough for the Orioles to pull out.

Oh, and he did it as the team's new cleanup hitter. No big deal to Palmeiro. "It's all the same - third, fourth, fifth, sixth. Those are the spots where you have to produce," he said.

Which brings us, painfully, back to Sammy Sosa.

If those spots are where you have to produce, then Sosa had to be dropped down.

One spot Monday night, then another Tuesday, and he went 0-for-8 in those games.

Last night, it was four groundouts, starting with a double-play ball in the second that got the Orioles' fans in the pinstripe crowd booing. More boos followed the next two at-bats.

The last at-bat was just excruciating; with any luck at all, the grounder headed to left field would have at least loaded the bases with two outs and the score still tied at 4. At most, it gives the Orioles the lead (although it also keeps Brian Roberts off SportsCenter).

Instead, Derek Jeter made one of his Derek Jeter plays, and Sosa was 3-for-his-past-35 and down to .235.

Pretty hard to argue taking him out of the cleanup spot.

To hear Mazzilli and Sosa tell it, Sosa didn't argue. It pays for the Orioles not to have Sosa blow up over this - or, at least, not to let anyone think he would.

It certainly pays for Sosa not to erupt, because his demotion from the cleanup spot in Chicago last year by Dusty Baker was a significant chapter in the sordid tale of his final season. Not as sordid as the whole videotape incident, but not particularly flattering, either.

So Mazzilli walked the tightrope just about perfectly.

It's not Sosa's fault, the manager said; the lineup is in shreds because of injuries, he's struggling, he's taking good swings, he's real close, and this is a temporary thing until he gets back in a groove and the big bats get back.

Breaking the news to Sosa, Mazzilli said, didn't set off any fireworks: "It was no problem. We had a great conversation."

Sosa's reaction? "He just wanted me to know, 'I'll play hard for you, you know that,' " Mazzilli said. "I said, 'I know that.' That's why you can never get mad at him."

Even when he grounds out to the left side, over and over again, no matter where he's batting.

If last season's feud-a-thon in the wake of his demotion in Chicago was any indication, a peaceful acceptance was not a given. But Sosa gave it the thumbs-up before the game. Mazzilli, he said, "was really nice about it. I really respect that. It's not the first time I've hit sixth. I don't have a problem with that."

Well, not anymore.

Last night was a turn-back-the-calendar night in many ways, including the fact that the Orioles overrode Sosa's failing bat with the opportunistic lineup around him.

The power surge of the first few months hid Sosa's skid from view. The heroics of last night protected him further.

The marquee acquisition of the Orioles' winter is hitting under .100 for the past week and a half; the statistical dip of last season has become a crater, and last night he hit behind Jay Gibbons and in front of Luis Matos.

Yet, all things considered, the O's are getting by. In fact, now the Yankees are back to being the division's biggest soap opera.

Deep down, fans won't care if the Orioles win because of Sosa, with Sosa or in spite of Sosa. If he stays cold and they start losing again, especially the way they were losing - blowing leads and charging umpires and flinging conspiracy theories around like your average NBA playoff coach - then what's left of the honeymoon with Sosa will come to an abrupt end.

On the other hand, if he starts hitting again, the Orioles can hardly help but win, and all will be forgiven.

Mazzilli saw Palmeiro work his way out of his own slump, and he said, "I have full confidence Sammy's going to do the same thing."

But that's a big if. The cleanup spot is in good hands right now. And there's not much further Sosa can move down.

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