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The All-Star break beckons, and the Orioles remain a study in contrast. It's as if they have been playing tug of war with themselves for the past three months.

If you want proof, you need only look at the past couple of weeks, during which they have staged a series of unlikely comebacks that would seem to signal some inner reservoir of character and resilience, only to lapse quickly back into cellar ball just when their fans start to feel like the franchise might actually be making progress.

None of this should be terribly surprising, of course. Fifth-place teams are not known for their consistency, yet even the teams at the bottom of the standings are populated with major league players who are liable to express their major league talent at any time. Hence, it is possible to see the worst team in baseball look like the best team in baseball every once in awhile.

So, it would be tempting to think that nothing has changed. The Orioles are still looking way, way up at the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, and the first half of the season has not produced a dramatic change in the overall competitiveness of the franchise.

It doesn't help that perception when the Orioles get shut out by a group of unheralded Toronto Blue Jays pitchers on Friday night and then trot out erratic left-hander Rich Hill to pitch against solid left-hander Ricky Romero on Saturday, but what you see is not necessarily what you're going to get a month or two from now.

Hill, for example, had been removed from the rotation - at least temporarily - until Jeremy Guthrie came down with a virus that knocked him out of the second game of the Toronto series. Hill's return might be just as temporary because there are rumblings of another much-ballyhooed minor league promotion that might make him expendable if his uneven (last night's solid outing notwithstanding) performance doesn't get him first.

The arrival of Chris Tillman, whenever he arrives, will not cause quite the excitement that accompanied top position prospect Matt Wieters to the major leagues six weeks ago, but it's another big step toward that seemingly bright future that everyone has been looking forward to since Andy MacPhail began to resculpt the organization in his own image.

The transition is coming faster than originally scheduled, but it is coming in fits and starts. Brad Bergesen was the first plug-in, and he has been an unqualified success. Nolan Reimold came next and got himself named American League Rookie of the Month for June, but he has slumped recently and was held out of the starting lineup Saturday night because manager Dave Trembley feels that he's pressing. Wieters arrived in late May and struggled out of the box before getting more comfortable at the plate.

The Orioles also have brought up Jason Berken and David Hernandez as they phased veterans Adam Eaton and Mark Hendrickson out of the rotation, and now have promoted about a quarter of the major league roster from Triple-A Norfolk since Opening Day. The fans who are clamoring for them to "Play the kids!" are getting their wish, and the transition could accelerate over the next few weeks.

It could speed up considerably if MacPhail decides to aggressively market veterans Aubrey Huff, George Sherrill and trade-restricted Melvin Mora before the July 31 deadline for making deals without waivers, but that would just exacerbate the club's competitive ebb and flow.

The team would get a lot younger and, over the short term, probably less able to go toe-to-toe with the other four teams in the AL East, but it would also begin to assume the form it will take for the foreseeable future. If the chatter on the blogs and message boards is any indication, the fans are ready for that to happen, but the team runs the risk of discouraging them further with another late-season swoon.

That's what MacPhail has said he wants to avoid, which puts him on a tightrope that is being pulled in both directions.

Listen to Peter Schmuck weeknights at 6 on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at

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