ARLINGTON, Texas -- Swayed by a seven-game win streak that has revived optimism in a club once given up for dead, Orioles general manager Pat Gillick says he now considers the team "definitely not out of contention for the wild card" and will push for it to remain intact barring a sudden reversal.
Gillick's comments represent the organization's latest position on what has become a continuing drama. Only two weeks remain before the July 31 trade deadline. The Orioles have that long to define themselves as either a contender or a clubhouse committed to transition.
Admitting he has received strong interest for several of the Orioles' 11 pending free agents, Gillick would not say where the Orioles need to be in the standings at month's end to justify keeping the club together. He instead described it as "more of a feel" based upon the quality of the club's play. The Orioles, who entered last night's game 45-50, have begun the second half with their most potent mix of pitching and offense this season. However, they have been below .500 for the last 56 games.
The Orioles last enjoyed a winning record on May 14, the night staff ace Mike Mussina was struck in the face by a line drive.
Manager Ray Miller has had to renovate a starting rotation that has missed three of its members at various times. He has employed 11 starting pitchers, second-most in the major leagues. The Orioles now look forward to regaining injured starters Jimmy Key (inflamed left rotator cuff) and Scott Kamieniecki (bulging disc) by month's end. Rookies Sidney Ponson and Nerio Rodriguez have indicated an ability to contribute.
Designated hitter Harold Baines (hamstring) is also on the disabled list; he is eligible to come off July 26.
"I think you have to play it by ear," said Gillick. "The pitching is TC back. You're playing well. [Arthur] Rhodes gets healthy. Baines gets healthy. And Key gets healthy. All of a sudden what we're talking about is making some additions. We have Ponson and Rodriguez who have pitched well. Then you've added without really going out on the market."
First baseman Rafael Palmeiro, one of those who have been most heavily shopped, said he believes the Orioles need to close within six games of the wild-card leader by month's end to legitimize their chances. "We can do it," he said. "We're playing ,, great baseball right now. I'm not saying we're out of it if we're not six back. But six games is certainly striking distance."
The Orioles entered last night 10 1/2 games behind the wild card-leading Boston Red Sox. However, they entered the second half trailing the Red Sox by 15 1/2 games before sweeping a four-game series from them last weekend. Their 6-0 homestand was the club's most successful in five years.
Gillick and assistant general manager Kevin Malone plan to meet with majority owner Peter Angelos once he returns this weekend from a European vacation. Club officials have consistently maintained no verdict would be made before July 20 about what course to take. Angelos, citing a covenant with the team's fans to present a playoff contender, is prone to pushing for the wild card rather than conceding. Two years ago, Angelos vetoed efforts to dump pending free agents David Wells and Bobby Bonilla when the Orioles stood 50-51 on July 26 and was rewarded with the team's first postseason berth in 13 years.
"[The win streak] complicates it. But it complicates it kind of nicely," Gillick said. "If we keep playing the way we have since the All-Star break, we'll probably get a wild card."
Gillick dismissed any suggestion that the team's improved play is linked to trade speculation.
"The last 10 games we've had about eight or nine well-pitched games. Pitching has a way of dictating how you play," Gillick said.
The rotation has accounted for four of the Orioles' last seven wins, equaling their win total from the previous 21 games.
Gillick added contingencies are in place should the club suffer a relapse. Alomar remains a trade target for the Cleveland Indians and New York Mets among others. Palmeiro maintains he wants to sign a contract extension with the Orioles but insists he be given a five-year deal. A return to Texas, where he played from 1989-93, is not an unattractive thought.
Alomar said he has no need for reassurance about his standing. "I'm a player. I play. That stuff is for the general manager and the front office. All I can do is go out and play my game. That's what I've been doing," he said.
Opponent: Anaheim Angels
Site: Edison International Field, Anaheim, Calif.
Time: 10: 05
TV/Radio: Ch. 54, 50/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Doug Drabek (5-9, 7.27) vs. Angels' Jason Dickson (9-6, 6.12)
Pub Date: 7/17/98