BOSTON -- Baltimore Orioles manager John Oates refused to be pulled into any discussion that bordered on the hypothetical, and who could blame him?
The Orioles are beginning to look almost lifelike. They defeated the Boston Red Sox, 9-3, at Fenway Park last night to stretch their modest winning streak to a season-high three games, but they are too far down the divisional ladder to think about anything more than getting from one day to the next.
"If we were playing better, I might look at the standings," Oates said, "but we were playing so poorly, I scrapped them altogether. When we're playing well enough to stay in the hunt, I'll start looking at them again, but we have to get all of our problems straightened out first."
Four days ago, Oates had lost four straight games and 9 pounds. Now, no American League team has a longer winning streak than the Orioles.
"Every single game right now is important," Oates said. "Every game we need something to build on. We need to be consistent and play well every night. All you're going to do looking at the standings right now is get frustrated."
Nevertheless, the club appears to have turned a corner. The starting rotation has put together a string of six solid performances. The bullpen appears to be following suit. And the Orioles actually have gained some ground on the rest of the American League East, pulling to within 8 1/2 games of first place.
"The last five games, we've played solid baseball and been in a position to win," said veteran outfielder Dwight Evans, who made a triumphant return to Fenway Park. "This team is starting to come together. We miss one guy a lot, but if we can't win without Glenn Davis, we don't have any character at all. If we can get to .500 at the All-Star break, anything can happen."
Left-hander Jeff Ballard (3-6) pitched a strong 6 1/3 innings to earn his first victory since April 24. Mike Devereaux and David Segui drove in two runs each as the Orioles built a five-run lead. The bullpen came to the rescue when the Red Sox threatened to recover in the late innings.
Oates made three pitching changes in the eighth inning and all of them worked. With the tying run at the plate and the heart of the Red Sox batting order lined up:
* Kevin Hickey came on to strike out Wade Boggs. He has retired Boggs 10 times in 11 career matchups.
L * Todd Frohwirth came on to get Tom Brunansky on a foul pop.
* Mike Flanagan came on to retire Mike Greenwell on a routine grounder to second base to end the inning and pitched a scoreless ninth to earn his first save since 1977.
It was quite a night for all of the Orioles, but it was a special evening for one of them in particular.
The allegiance of the sellout crowd was split between the first-place Red Sox and Evans, a favorite son who was playing at Fenway for the first time since the club chose not to pick up the 1991 option on his contract.
Evans got a standing ovation when he went out to right field in the first inning and another when he went to the plate in the second inning for his first at-bat. It was a reception fit for a player who distinguished himself in a Boston uniform for 19 seasons, though Evans turned in a fairly undistinguished 1-for-4 performance at the plate. Sam Horn had a more impressive homecoming, with a three-run homer in the ninth inning that turned the game into a blowout.
While the Boston fans applauded Evans' every move, the Orioles got to see what they missed during the free agent free-for-all last winter. Left-hander Matt Young carried a shutout into the fifth before self-destructing with five walks over the next two innings.
Young was at the top of the Orioles' free agent wish list until the Red Sox signed him to a three-year, $6.35 million contract in December. He had pitched well in his first nine starts of 1991, but a couple of no-out walks in the fifth took the wind -- and the win -- out of what was shaping up to be a strong performance last night.
The Orioles went on to load the bases on a base hit by Bob Melvin, then threatened to waste a major opportunity when Bill Ripken bounced into a home-to-first double play. But Mike Devereaux stroked a line drive into the gap in left center to erase a one-run deficit.
Young walked the bases loaded with no outs in the top of the sixth before Red Sox manager Joe Morgan went to his bullpen. Right-hander Greg Harris came on to give up a two-run double to Segui and an RBI single to Melvin before Ripken brought home the fourth run of the inning with the first out -- a sacrifice fly to right field.
The Orioles were working on a string of five solid performances by the starting rotation, which began when Ballard turned in a strong 6 1/3 innings on Saturday night. But he knew he would have to be on his best behavior at Fenway Park, where being left-handed has never been considered a great advantage.
Brunansky provided a perfect illustration of that point in the second inning, when he hit a rocket into the screen atop the Green Monster.