SEATTLE -- It's getting more and more difficult to determine who's the contender and who's the pretender when the Orioles meet the Seattle Mariners.
And it's becoming obvious that the Mariners, who are last in the American League's Western Division, feel they have the upper hand when the two teams meet. They have won 10 of the last 11 series against the Orioles, dating to 1989, and have a 41-29 record against them since 1987.
"They [the Orioles] know it, too," said Seattle's rookie manager, Bill Plummer, after the Mariners took a leg up on the current series with a 6-4 win Friday night. "Around the batting cage [Friday night] they were saying things like we play them better than anybody."
That wasn't true early in the year, when the Mariners couldn't seem to beat anyone unless Dave Fleming was pitching. But, since they fell under the early spell of Camden Yards and were swept in the first three-game series of the year, the Mariners had won five of their past seven meetings with the Orioles before last night's game.
Reliever Jeff Nelson, the Baltimore native from Catonsville who earned the save in Friday night's win, can sense the difference in the Mariners -- and not just when they play the Orioles.
"We have a winning attitude now," said Nelson. "Before we came to the park hoping nothing would happen. Now we come into a game knowing we're going to win."
That's a feeling the Orioles would like to get sometime real soon. They have languished while the first-place Toronto Blue Jays have stumbled, making it appear that the American League East race will be decided by default.
Friday night's loss to the Mariners was not typical of the Orioles' season to date -- but it fit in with any number of other excruciating defeats in this yo-yo of a season. There were many opportunities avoided against Seattle starter Tim Leary, making his first start against the Orioles since the "scuff ball" incident June 21, when he hit catcher Chris Hoiles with a pitch as a member of the Yankees.
There was also a mixture of sloppy defense and ineffective pitching, particularly on the part of starter Ben McDonald (12-10).
"You have to do three things in this game -- pitch, hit and catch the ball -- and we didn't do any of them," said Orioles manager John Oates. "We had almost as many errors [three] as we did hits [five] and runs -- and they had more hits  than everything we had combined."
As the Orioles prepared to face the Mariners last night, the only consolation, as it has been for most of the past two months, was the fact that the Blue Jays have not been able to distance themselves from the pack. Toronto's second straight loss to the Brewers yesterday presented the Orioles with another chance to move within 1 1/2 games of the lead -- while being mindful of the fact that Milwaukee was lurking only another 1 1/2 games behind.
"The only team we can look out for right now is ourselves," said Oates. "They [the Blue Jays and Brewers] are playing each other, but it doesn't help us if we don't win. We can't be concerned about what they're doing."
But neither can the Orioles avoid knowing what has happened. Every time they take the field on the West Coast, the Blue Jays' score is posted. It is impossible not to watch the scoreboard at this time of year -- especially with the final result staring you in the face.
Judging from the most recent results, the Orioles shouldn't have any trouble focusing on the Mariners. They have become one of the American League's most formidable offensive teams. Last night they were looking to clinch their sixth straight series win -- in marked contrast to the Orioles, who have won only won of their past six.
"They are a very hot-hitting ballclub right now," said Oates. "They have a good lineup, with their 1-2-3 hitters [Omar Vizquel, Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey] well over .300."
The Orioles' task doesn't figure to get easier in the immediate future. Once they get out of Seattle, the Orioles have to contend with the Oakland Athletics for the next three games, before concluding the trip in Anaheim, Calif., next weekend against the Angels.
When they return home, the Orioles will play 16 of their next 20 at Camden Yards, including three-game series against the Brewers and Blue Jays.
How they fare in the next week will determine the importance of those games in the final month of the season.