6-week spurt doesn't prove Orioles can compete

Even before Alex Rodriguez hit that dramatic ninth-inning home run to carry the New York Yankees past the Orioles and back into first place in the American League East on Friday night, manager Buck Showalter was trying to keep the one-sided rivalry from becoming a referendum.

It's way too early for that.

The Yankees may be the yardstick by which lesser teams measure both pain and gain, but Showalter quickly rattled off the names of the other teams in the division and pointed out that all of them are higher than the O's on the competitive food chain — not just the Yankees.

"They're all good teams in this division," Showalter said. "I'd like them (his players) to be a little more self-evaluating. I think everybody has a grip on what level we have to attain to compete here. If they don't know that, they haven't been paying attention."

Indeed, everybody knows the bar is very high, but on a weekend when the Orioles try to stack up against A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and long-time O's nemesis Andy Pettitte, it's natural to look forward to a time when Orioles fans won't have to go hoarse trying to outshout their Yankee counterparts in their own ballpark.

Here's the bad news. That time probably isn't as close at hand as the Orioles' uplifting performance over the past six weeks might make it appear, and Friday night's deflating ninth inning is a microcosmic illustration of the ground that still needs to be made up before Camden Yards will be awash in orange and black instead of pinstripes for a late-season Yankees series.

The best player in the league launched his second home run of the game with two outs to bring the Yankees back from a two-run deficit and the guy who might be best closer in the history of the game pitched a scoreless ninth to secure a victory that moved his team back into first place in the American League East.

The Orioles don't even have a true cleanup hitter, and that's taking nothing away from likely team MVP Luke Scott. The Orioles also don't have a shutdown closer, though Koji Uehara has done a pretty good job against everybody but the Yankees.

In fact, if you really want to put down your Kool-Aid for a second and take a hard look at the Orioles in contrast with the Yankees, just count up the number of players on the current roster that you'd draft over their Yankee counterparts for your fantasy team.

On second thought, just take my word for it.

Not very many.

The Orioles have been playing very well of late because the young starting rotation clearly has turned a corner. The first half of Andy MacPhail's "Grow the Arms, Buy the Bats" rebuilding program seems to be right on schedule, but it's going to take a lot more than that to stretch a six-week spurt of .600 baseball into a six-month pennant run.

And that, my long-suffering friends, is where the rubber hits the long road to real respectability.

While everyone around here has been reveling in the team's sudden rebound, Showalter has been reviewing every inch of the organization, and he's certainly not sipping any of sweet, sugary beverage that comes in the big pitcher with the smiley face.

"The greatest thing an organization can do is have a sense of reality and knowing thyself," he said Friday. "You have to know where you are and who you are. Sometimes, it's tough to be that honest with yourself. The teams that have long-term success evaluate themselves with clear glasses."

This is where you have to read between the lines, and you may not like what you find. The Orioles, first and foremost, need a premier power guy at the heart of their lineup, but the best long-range options are not likely to reach the free agent market this winter.

So, what do you do?

I'm guessing that the fans would settle for the best player available – which might be an Adam Dunn or Carlos Pena – but that doesn't mean Showalter would. He seems to have a pretty good idea of where he wants to go with this team, and I'm not so sure that he expects to get there in 2011.

If that's the case, the club's unexpected surge might end up being a scourge, because it already has created a whole new set of expectations that — sorry folks — aren't likely to be realized as soon as next year.

The Yankees may be in the other dugout this weekend, but they're still a world away.

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon Fridays and Saturdays and at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays with Brett Hollander. Also, check out his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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