Up In The Air?

As the Red Sox come to town for a four-game series, many wonder: Is the AL East still ...

July 07, 2005|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The last time the Orioles played a game against the Boston Red Sox, it ended with a three-run, walk-off homer by David Ortiz. It ended with the crowd at Fenway Park roaring its approval as Ortiz took a giant leap onto home plate.

It also ended with the Orioles still feeling pretty good about themselves, blown save and all.

But so much has changed since that June 2 defeat. The Orioles were 11 games above .500, not five. They were sitting in first place in the American League East, not a half game from relinquishing sole possession of second.

A four-game series against the Red Sox that begins tonight at Camden Yards could return the Orioles to the top of their division, or it could bury them. Players tried to downplay the significance Tuesday afternoon while dressing in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, reciting the length of a season and the many bumps that provide its texture, but the urgency seemed pretty obvious.

"This is above any series I have played in the past," second baseman Brian Roberts said. "This is what you play for. We're in it and now it's time to step up and do something.

"Maybe this will be something to pick us up, but we're going to have to play a lot better than we have. You've got to find a way to get it done at this point. There are no more excuses at this juncture.

"We're certainly not where we want to be after the way we started, but you've just got to battle back from it."

The Orioles have lost 11 of 13, but the Red Sox still are within view, their own issues preventing the defending World Series champions from running away with the division. Only four games separate the teams.

"We haven't won much in the last few weeks, and you look up and you're [four games] out of first place, and that's the bottom line. That's the positive of it," manager Lee Mazzilli said. "I feel like this team is ready to make that move, like we did in April, and put a nice little streak together."

It better come soon.

The Red Sox lost five of seven before defeating the Texas Rangers the past two nights, but they'll soon inject Curt Schilling into their pitching - starting him out in the bullpen - once he completes an injury rehabilitation assignment in the minors. Closer, Keith Foulke returned to Boston for magnetic resonance imaging tests on both knees after he blew two saves within a week. He was put on the 15-day disabled list yesterday and will have arthroscopic surgery on his left knee.

If the Orioles want to get healthier in the standings, if not their entire roster, this would be the appropriate time.

"We haven't played as well as we did the first couple of months," Mazzilli said. "You've got to go out there and play four games hard and see where you're at. You don't play the first half, struggle and then be [four games] out and not think that you can compete."

The Orioles didn't put up much of a fight during Boston's last visit in April. The Red Sox posted consecutive shutouts while sweeping a two-game series.

If only the Orioles could get that kind of pitching. Their rotation compiled a 5.48 ERA last month. The past three starters have combined for 5 2/3 innings, stretching thin a bullpen that has grown less reliable on the back end.

"The starters had been doing real well and a lot of [relievers] hadn't been getting their work in. Now, it's kind of changed," reliever James Baldwin said. "You're going to go through spells like that. We're going to be fine."

Said catcher Sal Fasano said: "They're in a little funk right now. When they start pitching better, we'll win. It's just a matter of time. Our hitting has been cold, our pitching has been cold and we're still only [four] games out. I'll take it."

Players keep sounding an optimistic tone in unison, even as the losses pile up and the national media pronounce them dead. They seem to have found their collective voices. Now they need to find a few more wins.

"We're going through a little bit of a funk," Baldwin said. "The Yankees went through it. Cleveland and those guys are hot teams we're facing right now. We've just got to go out there and continue to fight. We're going to be in it. It's a dog race all the way to the end."

Said Roberts: "It's not like we're 10 games out. There's still [79] games to be played. I don't think we're in that bad of a position. We've been in a lot worse."

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