KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If they were headed anywhere else, the Orioles would be just another surprising team on a roll with a winning streak on the line.
But, regardless of what the calendar says, the Orioles will find themselves involved in a series of some magnitude when they face the New York Yankees in three games this weekend.
Whenever the Big Apple is involved, it's never too early for a "big" series.
Riding the crest of a seven-game winning streak after sweeping four games from the Detroit Tigers and three from the Kansas City Royals, the Orioles are tied with the Yankees for second place in the American League East, two games behind the division-leading Toronto Blue Jays.
They reached that lofty perch here last night with an 8-1 win over the Royals on the six-hit pitching of Mike Mussina -- and an offensive cluster that produced all of the runs within a span of four innings.
And if the Orioles don't feel it yet, the chances are they will soon realize this weekend is more than just another April series.
"Every series is a big one for us," said Mike Flanagan, a veteran of many pennant races who is aware of the stigma left over from 95 losses a year ago. "But I think some of the younger guys will be surprised when they get to the park.
"They [the media and fans] will make it a big series because they're playing well -- which they haven't done lately -- and we're playing well. Sometimes when that happens, it rekindles old rivalries.
"And there was a big rivalry there [between the Orioles and Yankees], but it's probably been missing since the late 1970s," said Flanagan. "All of a sudden you get to the park and you can feel it -- being in New York, going to Yankee Stadium can do that."
In a 162-game season, nobody will admit to any pressing significance to a three-game series in April. But when New York is involved, there is always a special meaning -- and in this case there is another factor to consider -- the Blue Jays.
A week ago, after they beat the Yankees three out of four after sweeping the Orioles in three games, it created a real fear that the race could be over before Father's Day.
"Everybody was starting to feel they might pull away," said Flanagan. "You started to think about the run Detroit made a few years ago  -- and there's a feeling maybe that could happen again."
John Oates takes Flanagan's theory about each series being big a step further. "Every game is an important game -- a win is a win and a loss is a loss," the manager said. "I don't think you can get to a big series until late September, early October.
"When you get down to only having two or three more chances -- that's when a series becomes big."
That much said, Oates did allow that the three games against the Yankees would be a step above normal for this time of year. "It should be interesting," he grudgingly admitted.
"I just hope we're talking like this in late September -- and it's not about second place," said Oates, who also addressed the importance of not letting the Blue Jays take early command of the race.
"We said that last week," he said. "They're too good to let them get too far out. If they get ahead by 12 or 15 games, they won't lose enough for anybody else to catch them.
"We can't allow that to happen. If they get out too far, and you don't even like to speculate on it, the only thing that would bring them back would be injuries to two or three of their key players."
The Orioles (10-5) currently possess the longest winning streak in baseball and have their best 15-game start since 1971. Their pitching staff has been the best in the league so far and, after a slow start, the offense has jumped up among the leaders.
"The way we're playing is very encouraging," said shortstop Cal Ripken, gradually shifting gears (.255) after a slow start. "But we don't want to look back -- we've got a whole season ahead.
"It's healthy to be fearful that there are so many games left," said Ripken. "You shouldn't just be happy the way you've played the first two weeks of the season.
"But it feels good to play well and win. It feels real good," said Ripken.
The Orioles haven't exactly been crushing the league powerhouses during their winning streak, but it doesn't diminish what they've accomplished. The Royals have lost 14 of 15 -- and except for wild pitches by Oakland's Rick Honeycutt they'd be threatening the Orioles' record 21 straight losses to open the 1988 season.
But Oates is quick to point out that the Detroit Tigers, who lost four straight in Baltimore last weekend, rebounded to hammer the Texas Rangers three straight times.
The sweep in Kansas City was the first for the Orioles since 1987, when they won four straight, and the final game was a laugher. "It's fun to watch something like that," said Oates. "I'd like to be able to manage 162 of those kind of games.
"But my feeling about these things, and I think the players feel the same way, is that things aren't going to fall in place all the time. There are going to be times nothing goes right -- like in Toronto, when everything we did backfired.
"When you're on a roll, you've got to enjoy it, because you know it's not going to be like this all the time. I think these guys are enjoying it right now, and they should."
ORIOLES VS. YANKEES
* Site: Yankee Stadium, New York.
* Dates and times: Tonight, 7:30; tomorrow, 1:30 p.m.; Sunday, ++ 1:30 p.m.
* Season series: First meeting. The Yankees won last season's series, 8-5.
* Tonight's pitchers: Bob Milacki (1-1, 3.54) vs. Greg Cadaret (1-0, 1.69).
* TV-Radio tonight: Chs. 2, 20; WBAL (1080 AM), WTOP (1500 AM).