O's fly off, look to land respect

9-game trip to show if homestand was fluke

May 30, 2001|By Joe Strauss | By Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

SEATTLE — Late Orioles game: Last night's game between the Orioles and Mariners ended too late to be included in this edition. A complete report can be found in later editions or on the Internet at http://www.sunspot.net.

SEATTLE - A year ago, the Orioles needed only an hour plane ride and one weekend to learn the answer. This week they'll travel more than 6,000 miles over 10 days to hopefully receive more encouraging feedback on where they stand against the American League's best.

Coming off their winningest homestand since 1993, the Orioles last night began a nine-game odyssey only 4 1/2 games off the division lead. At no time this season have they been challenged as consistently as the three-city, two-coast tour that will take them to three of the league's four incumbent playoff teams. The Seattle Mariners, Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees will tell them what they need to know, good or bad.

"We're still a club in transition. We're still trying to build. But we just happen to be a team that has people who play their butts off," manager Mike Hargrove says. "Will it tell us where we stand? To some extent, yes. But we already know where we're going."

The Orioles convincingly say they know their direction. The upcoming three series will offer a clue about how much of the journey remains.

Last year's May series in Yankee Stadium exposed them. At 15-12, the Orioles it possible to contend for a wild card by straightening their bullpen. However, a 12-10 loss on May 5 not only set the tone for a losing series, it revealed a situation with no quick fix. Reliever B. J. Ryan's late-inning collapse was only the first in a lost series that helped start a 2-13 spiral that cemented the front office's decision to purge many of its veterans two months later.

Ranked last in the league in hitting and in the lower half in pitching, these Orioles have made themselves dangerous with consistent defense and the kind of pressure offense that can create havoc within the more sedentary American League.

The Orioles have won five of their last seven series. The exceptions were a four-game sweep suffered at home against the Yankees before losing two of three in New York earlier this month. Only one of the losses came by more than three runs.

This road trip begins against a team playing in another stratosphere.

The steamrolling Mariners have suffered consecutive losses only three times this season and have yet to absorb a three-game losing streak. They just emerged from a six-game road trip to Minnesota and Kansas City in which they batted .333 (79-for-237) and scored 50 runs. Nearly one-third of the way through their schedule, they've been held to fewer than five runs in consecutive games just four times, largely because of the breakthrough by Japanese rookie outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.

This week's schedule cuts the Orioles no break, either, as they'll see both undefeated Mariners starting pitchers - Freddy Garcia (4-0) and one-time almost-Oriole Aaron Sele (7-0), whom general manager Pat Gillick famously described as arriving in December 1999 "like a star falling from the sky."

While the A's may no longer be considered realistic challengers to the Mariners, they still consider themselves alive for the wild card. Since an 8-18 start, the A's entered last night on a 16-7 tear that even allowed them a one-day peek above .500.

"We can't give away extra outs. We just can't. That's what killed us in that Yankees series. That's the difference between us losing those games in New York and winning them," left-handed reliever Buddy Groom says. "To go with that, it seems in the last few years against them we haven't gotten the key call. Sometimes we haven't gotten the pitch that should have been called a strike. That comes from getting respect from the umpires. Now we go to Seattle with all this Ichiro stuff."

While Suzuki adorns last week's cover of Sports Illustrated, the Orioles perceive themselves receiving no acknowledgment for a decent start from the same sources who ridiculed them in spring training and during a difficult early April.

"You learn how to win just like you learn how to tie your shoes," Hargrove says. "It's also important to gain some respect from around the game. We haven't gotten any respect from Day One from anybody in the national media."

Hargrove is not alone within an organization that habitually watches shows and takes names of those who treat it dismissively. Numerous media "offenders" have received calls or letters from warehouse personnel in this and previous seasons, perhaps serving to harden a critical spin.

For 10 days, the Orioles have the floor.

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