Orioles' hot streak welcome, but it's time to chill that wild-card talk

Open Season

August 16, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

MAYBE IT'S one of the unforeseen side effects of Michaelmania, but there are some people out there who are starting to believe that the Orioles can make a run at the American League's wild-card berth.

The O's, left for dead when they were 12 games under .500 a few weeks ago, scored eight runs in the eighth inning yesterday to win for the 11th time in 13 games. They are just two games below sea level and seven games off the lead in the wild-card derby.

Stranger things have happened, right?

Indeed. Michael settled for a bronze yesterday. Phil Mickelson won a major this year. The Cleveland Indians are two games out of first place in the American League Central. Terrell Owens has gone almost two days without doing or saying something idiotic enough to make national headlines.

So why can't the Orioles close a seven-game gap and make the playoffs for the first time since 1997?

It's mathematically possible. There are 46 games left on their regular-season schedule. The rival Red Sox have been known to wilt in September. The Texas Rangers seem to be losing altitude. The Anaheim Angels aren't all that, either. But it's not going to happen.

The past two weeks have been impressive, featuring a perfect seven-game homestand and two more series victories at Anaheim and Toronto, but the Orioles would have to maintain the winning percentage of their current 11-2 run (.846) - or come pretty close - to squeeze the wild-card standings enough to make a late-season playoff run a legitimate possibility.

They can start by staying hot against the AL West-leading Oakland Athletics, who open a three-game series here tonight, but the schedule the rest of the season is so daunting that it might be better to keep their sights on coming out of 2004 with an air of respectability. That would certainly beat the smell of defeat that has permeated the organization for the past six years.

Of the next 35 games, 26 are against teams that are currently in first place in their divisions or the wild-card standings. If the Orioles still have a mathematical chance after the grueling 13-game trip that starts next week and takes them through Oakland, Texas, Tampa Bay and New York, then maybe there will be room enough to dream.

Still, you can't help but be impressed with the recent turnaround and, particularly, the way the Orioles came back to win yesterday.

It would have been easy enough when they were trailing by six runs to pack it in and head home content with three victories in six games on the circuitous West Coast/Canadian sojourn, but the Orioles delivered clutch hit after clutch hit in the eight-run eighth inning to win another series and display the kind of team chemistry that seemed so lacking when manager Lee Mazzilli was on the hot seat a month ago.

If you've lost count, that's five four-hit games for David Newhan since he made his Orioles debut on June 18. Miguel Tejada is the unquestioned team MVP (and might end up being the American League MVP if the O's stay competitive), but Newhan has been a critical catalyst in the recent revival of the team.

This may sound like sacrilege, but there is a team in the AL that reminds me of the 1989 "Why Not?" Orioles, and it's not the Orioles.

The Indians would have moved into a virtual tie with the Minnesota Twins in the AL Central if they had won yesterday's series finale against the Twins at Jacobs Field. They didn't, but they look like they'll be in the race for the duration, and could be the team to watch with 12 of their final 18 games against the Tigers and Royals.

Final word: It was Canine Day yesterday at SkyDome. Blue Jays fans were allowed to bring their four-legged friends to the ballpark for the finale of the series with the Orioles. The way the Jays have played this season, the logic of designating only one day as Canine Day escapes me, but it was fun to see hundreds of dogs in the stands.

I'm sure the cleanup crew was pretty excited about it, too.

Readers can contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

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