For Orioles, it's first and foremost

April 21, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

DO NOT FEAR. The repetitive sound you hear is not the start of cicada season. Those would be hits. Singles, doubles and a Melvin Mora homer jumping off the eager bats of the first-place Orioles.

Listen how they echo off the brick walls of the warehouse, over the Inner Harbor and into the void left in the wake of Yankees/Red Sox mania.

Call it Baltimore's Morse code. Anyone listening? The 8-4 O's are in first place in the American League East.

It's worth repeating: The Orioles are in first. Their win percentage is .667, which math geniuses say computes to winning two games out of every three - unless it's against the Blue Jays. Then the Orioles win three out of three.

Only the killjoys and the humorless among us would say it's only April.

Only curmudgeons sigh and say it's still early, that it's going to take 102 wins to take the American League East, so get back to us in August when the young Orioles pitchers are gassed.

We know that type of baseball "fan." They're people who don't like Shetland ponies, who tell small children to play in traffic; people who, after rainstorms, don't search the suddenly sunny sky for that rainbow.

What kind of imagination does it take to study the current standings, only to conclude it's only a matter of time before the Yankees and Red Sox are on top?

To say the Orioles' sole possession of first place in the AL East doesn't matter, that the Devil Rays got off to a hot start last year and what good did it do them, demonstrates such deficit of joie de vivre.

The national hangover from the overblown Yankees/Red Sox series is over now. Let Alex Rodriguez try and exorcise the demonic taunts from Fenway from his $252 million psyche so his batting average can rise above the Mendoza line.

Let Red Sox pitchers Derek Lowe and Pedro Martinez stew over revelations that the front office dictated the rotation after two rainouts, not new manager Terry Francona, opening the question about who'll actually control that clubhouse the next time Manny Ramirez has a sore throat and doesn't want to play against the Yankees.

Let the Blue Jays figure out how not to get swept again after the Orioles' weekend warrior escapade through Toronto.

Let Tampa Bay manager Lou Piniella pine for the days when he skippered teams that far better served his competitive fire, not to mention his theatrical flair for the big stage.

Here's something only the Orioles can say: First place is a lot better than second place. It sure beats third place. It's far more exciting than fourth and, for the real naysayers having to eat their preseason prognostications, it sure isn't fifth.

What that means is that ESPN baseball analyst Harold Reynolds had to excuse himself on national TV Sunday night. It might have been wrong for Reynolds - a former Orioles second baseman - to pick the Orioles to finish fifth.

Fifth? Not at this heady little moment. First.

"You act surprised," said Jay Gibbons, sauntering through the clubhouse like a young hitter who woke up after a six-year nightmare to find himself the No. 6 hitter behind a new heart of an Orioles batting order, the likes of which can slug it out with anyone in the division.

In fact, if there's fun again in the Orioles' clubhouse, if there's good energy and excellent karma, it's because the Orioles have accomplished the most important task this April.

"Everybody is pulling for each other," said Sidney Ponson after his complete-game gem.

"Hopefully, fans will see we have a pretty good team. I know it's been a lot of futility the last six years in a row, but if they come and support us, then it will only give us more energy," he said.

First place is great. Winning is great, but it's the belief that they should win and can win every time they take the field that makes the Orioles such a threat.

"It's great. It means we're doing well and that's all you can ask. You don't want to put too much credence in it but that's all you can ask. Leave your hearts and souls on the field," manager Lee Mazzilli said.

With 14 hits and a 9-1 win over the Devil Rays, the Orioles started a 10-game homestand last night with a bang. The Devil Rays probably don't relish their next few nights at Camden Yards, not the way the Orioles bludgeoned their way to victory.

No wonder Boston and Toronto were only too happy to see the Orioles leave town.

It's only April? The way Miguel Tejada, Rafael Palmeiro and Javy Lopez are leading an Orioles hit parade, it may not matter that the team's entire rotation combined has pitched fewer innings than Mike Mussina.

With this kind of run support, the question for the youthful pitchers will be: "What pressure?"

"I think we're winning with both arms and bats," said Lopez, who has hit in all 12 games as an Oriole to extend his streak to 15 games and has a handle on his new staff.

"The way everybody's doing their job is pretty impressive so far," he said.

Impressive and worth more than just a shrug of the shoulders as we wait for the Yankees and Red Sox to do what they're ordained to do.

It's been a long time since the Orioles have found themselves in this position. It was April 16, 1998, to be exact, since the Orioles were in first place.

It makes no sense not to enjoy this.

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