MILWAUKEE -- As recently as two weeks ago, the series between the Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays that opens tonight looked like it might decide the American League East race.
And a mere five days ago, it still figured to be the last challenge for the Blue Jays in their attempt to win back-to-back division titles for the first time in their history.
To say that the three-game showdown has lost some of its luster is like saying the Orioles are having a slow month. The three games at Camden Yards now loom as a survival test, not only for the Orioles, but also for the Milwaukee Brewers, who have supplanted them in second place.
A very long weekend in Milwaukee has left the Orioles grasping for mathematical possibilities, which is the position the Brewers have been in for a while. Anything less than a three-game sweep by the Orioles against the Blue Jays realistically, if not officially, will remove both teams from the race.
"Realistically, we've got to sweep for it to mean anything," Orioles manager Johnny Oates said. "Anything other than winning our next four [counting last night's game against the Brewers] would make it very, very tough."
While admitting that the circumstances are hardly what he had hoped for coming into the series, Oates doesn't expect the intensity level to drop. "I want us to play hard until the last out [of the season]," he said.
"When you look back [on the season] somebody's always got us headed in the right direction -- either with a big hit or a
well-pitched game -- whenever we've struggled."
Although the Orioles' misadventures against the Brewers over the weekend may not have changed the perspective of the Blue Jays, it did change their primary pursuer, with Milwaukee moving into second place. Which means there are two teams relying on a sweep by the Orioles in the next three days.
"These guys [the Orioles] can go home and sweep," said Brewers manager Phil Garner. "And if they do, we'll be right in the middle of it."
And if the Orioles don't, the Blue Jays can concentrate on getting their starting rotation in order for the playoffs.
If the importance of the series has diminished somewhat, it wasn't evidenced by the Blue Jays' preparation. While the Orioles sent tonight's starter, Rick Sutcliffe, home a day early yesterday, the entire Toronto team got a jump in that department.
The Blue Jays flew into Baltimore on Sunday night, immediately after their game against Texas, and spent yesterday getting acclimated.
With the Orioles in a position best described as dire, Oates said the situation could help dictate game strategy. "Sure it does," he said. "Especially the way we're [not] scoring runs.
"If you get somebody down 3-0, you want to shut a rally down right away," said Oates. "You can't wait to see what's going to happen."
In that regard, the urgency is not as severe for Oates' counterpart with Toronto. The toughest decision Cito Gaston had to make over the weekend was who to root for in the Orioles-Brewers series.
Gaston won't have to worry about disrupting his bullpen with an early move the next three nights, or re-arranging his rotation, as Oates did a week ago in order to get Sutcliffe an extra start if necessary.
Neither Juan Guzman nor David Cone will pitch in the series, but the Blue Jays have Todd Stottlemyre, who is 6-0 lifetime against the Orioles, ready to face Sutcliffe in the first game.
In tomorrow night's game, the series gets an added attraction as Jack Morris makes his second attempt to become the first 20-game winner in Blue Jays history.
Meanwhile, the Orioles will concern themselves with finding the right combination to keep the mathematic possibilities alive.
And everybody -- even the Blue Jays -- knows the combination.
It's 3-and-0 or no go.