Not that long ago, the next four games were considered vital to the Orioles' hopes of winning the AL East.
The long weekend series that starts tonight in Toronto (7:35, HTS) will still have a bearing on the race -- but only for the Blue Jays. The Orioles long ago passed out of contention, and their role is reduced to that of spoiler in three remaining series -- this one in the SkyDome, three games at home next week against Boston and the final three games of the season at Memorial Stadium against the Blue Jays.
The pitching matchups for the four games this weekend indicate a decided advantage for the defending division champions. Their four scheduled starters have a combined record of 45-19, opposed to the 23-23 of the Orioles starters they will face.
Righthander Dave Stieb (18-5, 2.78 ERA), enjoying his best year and trying to become a 20-game winner for the first time, faces Jose Mesa (0-2, 5.89) tonight. Despite uninspiring numbers to date, Mesa already has shown enough for Orioles manager Frank Robinson to consider him a bona fide contender for the starting rotation next year. The Blue Jays will not be strangers to Mesa, who spent six years in the Toronto organization before coming over in the Mike Flanagan trade three years ago.
Tomorrow night, Toronto will send Jimmy Key (10-7, 4.14) against Anthony Telford (2-2, 2.70). Another young candidate for next year's rotation, Telford will be making his sixth start since being called up from Double A Hagerstown, and his first one away from Memorial Stadium.
David Wells (11-4, 3.16) and Frank Willis (6-3, 4.52) will pitch the final two games for the Blue Jays. Pete Harnisch (10-11, 4.51) and Dave Johnson (11-8, 4.19) will pitch for the Orioles.