At the beginning of this week's three-game series against the Texas Rangers, the Orioles described it as "critical" to what direction they would choose for the rest of their season.
A post-game stopover at Juan Guzman's locker said everything about how it ended.
Guzman not only took the loss in the Orioles' 3-1, three-hit defeat, he left the clubhouse frustrated over a solid performance undermined by poor support and unsure whether he even would be accompanying the team on their return from a six-game West Coast trip beginning tonight in Seattle and including the July 31 waiver deadline.
"I'm a professional," Guzman said. "I pitch wherever I go."
Guzman (5-9) is a veteran of such intrigue. As part of last summer's quixotic wild-card push, the Orioles acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays for pitching prospect Nerio Rodriguez hours before the waiver deadline.
Guzman has since confirmed his reputation as an occasionally brilliant, but often befuddling talent whose best work comes after the first inning and before the seventh.
With a desk calendar before him, manager Ray Miller looked at the remaining weeks and contemplated general manager Frank Wren's description of the series.
"They're all critical when you're down in the standings. There's a reason they've got a pretty good lead in their division. They're a good ballclub," Miller said.
But how good are these 46-55 Orioles? They fell nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the wild-card chase and were reminded of their struggles against tough rivals. They are now 20-38 against teams with winning records and 8-22 against the American League's top four clubs.
Yesterday, before a Camden Yards crowd of 43,711, Guzman surrendered three bases-empty home runs among six hits in 7 1/3 innings. Roberto Kelly, Royce Clayton and Ivan Rodriguez reached him in the third, fifth and eighth innings before Miller replaced him with Jesse Orosco.
Ageless Mike Morgan (11-6), drafted in the same year (1978) as Cal Ripken, made his 400th career start a memorable one by holding the Orioles to Ripken's lined double, Mike Bordick's sun-aided triple and B. J. Surhoff's RBI single in the third inning.
The Orioles managed three base runners and no hits against Morgan and three relievers in the last five innings.
The game, and perhaps the Orioles' realistic hopes for a postseason run, perished in the ninth inning when Surhoff flied out softly to center field.
"We just have to move on," said Miller.
Whether the manager meant Seattle or a long-range plan was left unsaid. The organization will likely clarify its position in the next 48 hours, when Guzman, reliever Arthur Rhodes or any of several position players such as Will Clark, Jeff Conine or even Bordick could be dealt.
Sentiment within a veteran clubhouse continues to run strongly against a purge.
"We never checked out on this season. It's everyone else who considers this season lost," Surhoff said. "None of us has. It comes back to the same question: Who are you going to trade and what are you going to get for them? Are we going to win five years from now? Four years from now? Or are we going to get somebody who can help us now?"
Reminded that the Rangers series was advertised as a compass for the next two months, Surhoff countered, "I don't know why anyone focuses on one series. We've won 12 out of 16. They should look at that more than the last three days."
"What's tough," said Bordick, "is to look at the individual seasons a lot of guys are having and then to look at where we stand. It's very frustrating. It doesn't add up."
Most would not be surprised if they've seen Guzman's last start in orange and black. Asked to evaluate Guzman's season so far, Miller spoke graciously, but without issuing a powerful endorsement.
"He pitched a pretty good game today. He's pitched two great games -- the one in Atlanta [June 12] and the one last time out [July 23]. The rest of them he's struggled early then usually settles down and gives you innings," said Miller.
"He's an older guy. When you've been through it before, you figure, `I'm going to be traded; I'm going to have a good game and make them take me. If I do good for them, maybe I'll get another contract.' Whereas a young guy who's never been traded before is paranoid. "
Guzman has been described as the perfect "rent-a-pitcher." On the final season of a contract that pays him $5.5 million this year, he is typical of the arms available to contending teams. Without a Randy Johnson or even a Scott Erickson available, Guzman may represent the missing link between numerous teams and a League Championship Series or World Series berth.
"I know how to pitch. No matter where I go, I'll go hard and show that I can pitch," Guzman said. "Every time you see me pitch, I'll go 100 percent and help the team win."
The Rangers and Cleveland Indians are among those most interested. Guzman, 32, has appeared in three postseasons with the Blue Jays and could safely be projected as a No. 3 starter within most rotations.