O's current role will test team's character


THIS MAY SOUND like an exercise in counter-intuition, but try to stay with me for a while.

The Orioles won eight straight games from April 22 to May 1, but that did not tell them very much about the true nature of the team. Sustained success tells you how good you can be, but it is sustained failure that really tells you who you are.

Which brings us to the final week before the All-Star break, with a battered ballclub in a deepening slump, and we're about to find out whether the most encouraging start in many years was the real deal or just some nova-like burst of energy before the dying of the light.

Maybe you think you already know. Sammy Sosa finally was benched yesterday ... or given a day off after a night game ... or, well, let's not argue over semantics. Injured pitcher Erik Bedard is still on no firm timetable to return from a knee injury. The Orioles have lost eight of their past 10 games to fall off the top of both the American League East and the wild-card standings.

Maybe you've still got your fingers crossed. Melvin Mora probably will return to the lineup today. Bedard threw off a mound without pain for the first time yesterday. Javy Lopez is expected to return from a broken hand after the break. It is possible the Orioles will be able to start the second half with the same lineup and the starting rotation that opened the season with such promise.

The big question is what happens between then and now. The final week of the first half is going to be a major character check - the team equivalent of those ISAM personality profiles that are so popular in the front office.

The Orioles complete this homestand with a chance to split the four-game series against the Cleveland Indians today, then close out the first half with a two-game series against the New York Yankees in the Bronx and a four-game showdown with the Boston Red Sox at home. That could be either an opportunity or a curse, depending on what's going on upstairs - and by upstairs I am not talking about the third floor of the warehouse.

They have handled both of the AL East powerhouses well this year, but this clearly is not the optimum time for such a weighty six-game stretch. If it isn't now or never, there certainly is a sense of urgency - which is much more preferable to impending doom.

"This is going to tell a lot about what our team is made of," first baseman Rafael Palmeiro said. "We've had some people go down. That's not an excuse. That's reality. This is a stretch that's going to be very important for us."

The veterans in the clubhouse, the guys who have played on good teams and bad, know the championship caliber of a ballclub reveals itself more in the bad times than the good.

"Absolutely," said relief pitcher Steve Reed. "I don't think you learn much about yourselves when you're winning, because the little stuff gets overlooked. Certain players come to the forefront when you're struggling. Some teams, you see finger-pointing."

That's true. The most natural thing to do when things go south is to start passing around the blame, but the Orioles have managed to avoid that so far, which is a credit to both the low-key manager and a very professional coaching staff. It's also a credit to the front office, which has filled the clubhouse with solid personalities.

"I don't see any of that," Reed said. "Most of the games we've been losing we've been [competitive] in, so the confidence level still is real high."

Still, Reed agrees the Orioles have reached a critical juncture in the season - a time when they can hold their place among the division leaders or lose valuable ground right before the reinforcements arrive.

"This team is going to find out who it is over the next couple of weeks," Reed said.

This opinion is not unanimous, but only because manager Lee Mazzilli is not one for grand proclamations. He isn't ready to concede the Orioles are about to embark on a short, crucial journey of self-discovery. He doesn't think it's necessary for his players to spend the next week or two finding out who they are.

"I think I already know who they are," Mazzilli said. "I think they know who they are. I'm not concerned about what they think of themselves. I look up at the standings and we're 2 1/2 games out of first place after all this. I can't be anything but optimistic."

What choice does he have?

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