Red Sox, not Yankees, provide O's reality check

April 21, 2005|By David Steele

SO MAYBE THERE are drawbacks to sweeping the New York Yankees after all.

One of them is that expectations rise, and often unjustly so. For example: Sweep the Yankees, beat them five of six times overall, blame the one loss on a bad break or two, and before you know it, people wonder whether you can maintain the momentum against the lowly Detroit Tigers.

Even worse: You've got to keep it up against a more legit opponent, a team whose fans take over your home park even more decisively than the Yankees' did, whose players are scarier, on the mound and at the plate, and whose owner doesn't e-mail overblown manifestos when the team falls on hard times.

The Boston Red Sox and their omnipresent Nation provided that specific challenge last night at Camden Yards. Whether the Orioles are up to that challenge remains to be seen. Last night, they were up to it for five innings, as long as Bruce Chen was able to work his early-season magic. The magic ran out in the sixth, but that happens a lot against these Red Sox, who appear to be managing the unusual task of defending a World Series title pretty well so far.

What needs to happen against the Sox is what happened against the Yankees, but the Orioles and their supporters - wherever they may be, because there haven't been many in the ballpark lately - had better be ready to face some harsh realities about what really did happen against the Yankees.

Doing what they did over two weekends in the Bronx and here indicates something about what they're capable of. It indicates more of what the Yankees can't do. The proof, then, will come in this mini-series that ends tonight, and early next week when the Orioles go to Fenway Park for three games.

Shake off last night's throttling quickly, hope that it was only a David Wells problem, convince themselves that they got more out of Chen against those thundering bats last night than anyone could have hoped for, and give the Red Sox something to think about over the next week - all of that would be an even more encouraging sign about this season than anything that happened last weekend.

"Yeah, I think that's a good test," Miguel Tejada said about these early matchups with the Yankees and Red Sox. "If we're going to win, we've got to play the teams we've got to face now."

Of course the Orioles would have to play better than they did last night. But, Tejada said, "We're still in first place, and we're going to take the field tomorrow like a first-place team."

At least the Orioles will know how to handle hostile crowds. Last night's was the biggest slap in the face this season, and that's saying a lot. The sellouts last weekend were probably 50 percent pinstripes, at most. Last night's crowd of 36,478 was pushing three-quarters Red Sox fans.

They showed up early, cheered every Wells strikeout, roared for Johnny and Manny and Jason and, during the seventh-inning stretch, drowned out the locals by shouting, "Root, root root for the Red Sox," as clearly as they would on Yawkey Way.

Tradition dies hard, and understandably so, and this city sets aside a special brand of hatred for the Yankees. But all things considered, shutting up the invaders from Boston would pack even more of a punch than having shut up the New Yorkers.

For one thing, for the time being, the Red Sox are the team they have to tussle with near the top of the American League East standings; the Yankees are near the bottom, and the fact that they lost at home to Tampa Bay devalues the Orioles' wins (not by much, but still a little bit).

Conversely, it has to juice the Red Sox to have gotten beyond the madness of their own two early Yankees series and won five of six normal games since the last time they played their mortal enemies. When they're caught up in curses, vendettas, nationwide hype, fan-vs.-player altercations and mass ticket revocation, it can warp perspective pretty badly. This run by the Sox might simply be from relief.

Their offense certainly seems to be exhaling, although it took a little while last night and got a boost from a balk by Chen with the bases loaded and two out in a scoreless game in the fifth. He gets out of that jam, and the avalanche might never have come; instead, it came in the sixth. Then again, with the Sox lineup, the avalanche is inevitable.

The problem last night, however, was not the "8" on the scoreboard, or even the "4" on it when Chen left; it was the "0." This was an untouchable Wells blowing them away for eight innings, not the eminently touchable Randy Johnson, Carl Pavano or Kevin Brown.

Hey, The Boss himself pointed it out in his latest technologically-advanced tirade: Just because you wear pinstripes doesn't mean you're a "true Yankee."

The truth about the Yankees came out last weekend. The truth about the Red Sox is on display for all to see (especially their endless stream of fans).

What's the truth about the Orioles? You think you've seen it already, but check in again this time next week.

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