More than three weeks have passed since anyone said "wild card" within the Orioles' clubhouse, a positive sign to those believing the franchise has been in denial the past two seasons.
To his credit or to his detriment, manager Ray Miller maneuvered last weekend like his team was in a playoff death match with the dreadful Detroit Tigers. Not only did starting pitcher Ricky Bones survive just 54 pitches and 3 2/3 innings in a 2-0 game when paired against Tigers "ace" Brian Moehler, the Orioles' bullpen was raided six times in what ended an 11-inning 5-2 downer.
A caring man and an outstanding pitching coach, Miller will be remembered as a manager who struggled to see beyond the present. Predictably, the Orioles lost Monday night when starter Jason Johnson was allowed to absorb a nine-run beating in a 10-9 loss to Tampa Bay.
Miller's reluctance to cut his losses early this season only contributed to more. One only need ask his bullpen.
Said one well-traveled veteran recently, "I have seen things here I've never seen before."
Shortstop Mike Bordick said much recently when he cited this season's largest frustration as watching numerous career years translate into so little. Conversely, the Orioles reached the 1997 American League Championship Series with no player enjoying a peak season.
Now, with 46 games left, a clubhouse constructed last winter largely of second- and third-chance mercenaries motivates itself by personal statistics.
What else would the rallying cry be: .500 or bust?
Last year's bunch of pending free agents was teased by the wild card then collapsed in a dispirited 10-23 finish. Their pursuit of a mirage now over, these Orioles may well outdo last year's 19-27 record over the final 46 games.
For those seeking suspense other than guessing how many empty seats will be included in Camden Yards' announced attendance, here are a few potential milestones to watch:
What's in a record? Entering tonight's series finale in Cleveland, the Orioles need a 28-18 finish to match last year's 79-83 fourth-place finish, 30-16 to finish .500. Even winning their last 46 games would not be enough to match their 1997 record of 98-64.
Discounting the 1994 strike season, they needed only finish 16-30 to avoid eclipsing the 1991 team as the decade's worst. Regardless, the Orioles are unlikely to challenge last season's 35-game deficit in their division.
The Orioles continue to challenge a major-league record for futility within their division. The record is held by none other than the 1988 edition, which produced a .321 win percentage within the seven-team AL East. With 13 games remaining against division rivals these Orioles are 10-26 within their five-team division, a .278 percentage, meaning they must go at least 6-7 down the stretch against Boston (seven games), Tampa Bay and New York (three games apiece) to avoid history.
Waiting on Junior: Cal Ripken has averaged a home run every 17.9 at-bats this season -- a leap from his career average of one every 27.2 at-bats before this season -- meaning the Iron Man is projected to crack No. 400 within five games of his return from the disabled list.
Sidelined since Aug. 1 because of recurring back pain, Ripken is expected to return during this week's six-game homestand against Minnesota and Chicago. His attempt to become the third player this season to reach 3,000 hits will depend on the timeliness of his comeback, whether he can sustain anything close to his .335 average and whether Miller elevates him in the batting order.
If the answer to the first two questions is yes and Ripken plays with regularity, he should get there in mid-September.
If Ripken is close but not there by Sept. 17, the Orioles embark on a three-city, eight-game road trip before ending the season at home against the Yankees and Red Sox.
Career years in the making: All-Star left fielder B. J. Surhoff has cooled since crafting one of the best first halves in team history. Surhoff remains on pace for 31 home runs and 121 RBIs, nine home runs and 29 RBIs better than his career bests. He also stands an excellent chance of earning a Gold Glove given his abundance of outfield assists and his standing as the league's only starting left fielder without an error.
At 40, designated hitter Harold Baines is pushing for the first 30-home run season of an understated 20-year career. One year after generating a career-low nine home runs, Baines' 23 homers leave him only two shy of his most since 1984, when he hit 29. He also entered the weekend on pace for 106 RBIs, his most since 1985 and the second-most in his career.
Bordick not only possesses the league's best fielding percentage at his position but is only one RBI shy of his career high.
Albert Belle needs only two home runs and 19 RBIs for his eighth consecutive season of at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs.