BOSTON -- All this work, just to get to .500. Now, the tough part begins. To win 90 games, the Orioles must play almost .600 ball the rest of the season. Even then, they'd be assured of nothing.
The 10-game winning streak that ended yesterday put this team in position to contend, nothing more. With 100 games left, the Orioles still have plenty of time to recover. But heaven knows, it won't be easy.
All this work, and they still gained only 2 1/2 games on first-place Detroit, going from 10 to 7 1/2 back. Still, this is no time to be discouraged. At least now the Orioles are in fourth place, not sixth. At least now, they've got a chance.
The Kansas City Royals recovered from a 2-9 start to take the AL West lead. The Orioles dug a far deeper hole, but they're not buried, either. To win 90 games, all they must do is finish 59-41 (.590).
"I don't think that's unreasonable," said Orioles first-base coach Davey Lopes. "We're starting to play like we did in spring training, like we did last year. I don't set any goals as far as numbers, but I don't think it's unrealistic at all."
Of course it's not: The Orioles have played .700 ball (14-6) over the past three weeks. Next, they visit sixth-place Milwaukee and seventh-place Cleveland. Then comes a pivotal nine-game homestand against Detroit, New York and Toronto.
The pitching has improved so much, the staff is now second in the American League with a 3.74 ERA. The defense has improved so much, the club has made only two errors in its past 10 games, and a fourth straight sub-100-error season is again possible.
The big question, again, will be the offense. The Orioles remain the league's second-lowest scoring team behind Boston, averaging 4.15 runs per game. Minus Glenn Davis, they lack a true cleanup hitter. But here, too, there's hope.
Ignore yesterday's 4-2 loss to Roger Clemens -- if the Orioles had won, it would have been time to call Las Vegas. Brady Anderson went 6-for-17, including a home run off Clemens, in the Boston series. Cal Ripken is batting .295 with 10 RBI in his past 15 games.
Modest surges perhaps, but surges nonetheless. Except for the two Harolds, this is essentially the same club that went into a massive offensive slump in the middle of a pennant race last September. But this time, the Orioles aren't chasing a dominant team.
The Toronto Blue Jays won 96 games last season and the World Series. Are the Tigers that good? No one in baseball thinks so. Indeed, if Sparky Anderson's makeshift pitching staff can sustain itself, it will be the upset of the season.
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, have a 4.72 team ERA, and the Yankees keep getting set back by injuries and shoddy relief pitching. Ninety wins might not be enough to win the division. But it would put the Orioles awfully close.
Naturally, manager Johnny Oates refused to project that far. But Oates conceded, "We can't let down now. We've had a good run. We can't let down and fall back. We've got to push forward and put together another one to get to that next level."
Pitcher Rick Sutcliffe added: "Streaks like that don't come along very often. The main thing we have to do is just get back to winning series. Really, if we're within five or six at the All-Star break, we'd be in pretty good shape."
It could happen. It should happen. The three Orioles pitchers in Milwaukee (Sutcliffe, Jamie Moyer and Mike Mussina) are a combined 16-7. The three Brewers pitchers (Bill Wegman, Ricky Bones and Jaime Navarro) are a combined 11-15.
After that, it's on to Cleveland, and the pleasure of facing a pitching staff with a 5.06 ERA. These are teams a legitimate contender must crush. The Red Sox were begging to lose all weekend. Only Clemens prevented them from getting swept.
"We're just getting our heads above water right now," Lopes said. "You take it a step at a time. But if you're going to make a move, this is the time to make it. You've got to make a statement now, or forever hold your peace.
"People can say it's too early, but you've got to let the people in front of you know the Orioles are not dead. That's where we're going. The attitude of this ballclub has completely changed. You feel like you should win every game."
They won't, of course, but at least now this team can believe in itself. The 1987 Orioles won 11 straight games in mid-July, only to finish 67-95. That won't happen to this group. They've come a long way. And there's a long way to go.