Reversing course, Orioles still in division race

July 11, 2005|By Peter Schmuck

IT WAS in the seventh inning that the Red Sox fans behind home plate started to get the message.

They tried to mount one last chorus of "Let's Go Red Sox," but the largest crowd in the history of Oriole Park would not allow it. Orioles fans, sensing that their team was on the verge of a very important victory, began to murmur ... and the murmur grew into a sustained expression of disapproval ... and that was that.

The only place the Red Sox were going was down for the third time in four games. They're still atop the American League East, but the Orioles served notice that it isn't over just yet - despite what you might have read on The Boston Globe's Web site a couple of weeks ago.

Three out of four? There were people who entered the weekend just hoping that the struggling O's would not get swept right out of the division race. I know, because I was one of them. There were people who would have settled for the great, uplifting victory on Saturday and a split that would have left the O's four games behind the Sox going into the second half. I was one of those, too.

I usually hate it when sports people start talking about character. It's one of those words that is way overused. Real character is when you keep your war medals in the closet because it's not polite to brag. Real character is when you're down on your luck and you find a cash-stuffed wallet on the street and you turn it into the police with all the cash still inside. Character, used in the context of sports, has become a tired cliche.

And I'm still going to say it. The Orioles showed tremendous character to recover from that discouraging two-game sweep in New York and dig out of a long slump with this statement series against the Red Sox.

They got a break from the weather in the opener and looked a little tired in the second game, but bounced back to deliver an uplifting weekend of baseball that re-established them as a team to be reckoned with in the second half.

This may be Miguel Tejada's team, but it was Rafael Palmeiro who stepped up and reminded everyone why he's a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer, homering in three straight games to re-energize an offense that had been riddled with injuries and mired in inconsistency.

Raffy will have to wait at least until Thursday for his date with history. He got just one of the three hits he needed to reach 3,000 yesterday, but it sailed onto the flag court and it was as if he were 32 again and all the early season angst about his waning production was just some bad dream.

"This was a big series for us," Palmeiro said. "The hits are going to come, but the thing we needed to do was get three of four."

How big? You don't even want to think about what could have happened. The way things went in New York, the possibility of a four-game sweep and an eight-game divisional deficit could not be discounted. It would have been all but over and it wouldn't have made a whole lot of difference when Javy Lopez and Erik Bedard got back.

Now, the Orioles can ponder what might be in the second half when they are able to reconstitute the starting rotation and the offensive chemistry that carried them to such an uplifting start.

"They [the Red Sox] know we're not going away," said outfielder Jay Gibbons, who homered in the fifth inning to give starter Rodrigo Lopez a 2-1 lead, "and we'll see what happens in the second half."

Lopez closed out an up-and-down first half with an outstanding performance, giving up just three hits over eight innings to record his eighth victory of the season - and possibly the biggest one of his life.

Four Orioles headed for Detroit for the All-Star Game, and now they can spend today telling the national media how this team overcame non-existent expectations to lead the AL East for 62 straight days and become one of the feel-good stories of 2005. Who would have imagined after Tuesday's loss in the Bronx that anyone would feel good enough to do that?

"We lost Bedard and Javy," said Tejada. "We lost one of our best pitchers and our catcher. Hopefully, we're going to get them back and come back and play the way we did at the start of the season."

That's the plan, and after what happened at Camden Yards the past four days, it suddenly seems possible again.

"That's baseball," Tejada said. "We have a good team. I hope the bad times have gone away and the good times come back in the second half."

Contact Peter Schmuck at peter.schmuck@baltsun.com.

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