As date with Red Sox arrives tonight, prepare to lose warm, fuzzy feeling

April 07, 2006|By RICK MAESE

For Orioles fans basking in a 2-1 record and already scheduling vacation time in October, reality could set in today, when the Boston Red Sox come to town for a three-game series. This weekend could be like a needle in a balloon.

But what if you could sleep through the alarm clock? Hit snooze and let the dream last a little longer? The first few days of the season have been fun. When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays are in town, doesn't it seem like the gas prices are lower, your inbox has less spam and every light is green?

If only every day could be a Devil Rays day. And if only every week was the first week of the season.

You might think the final week of the baseball season is the most exciting. But the first week is the most intriguing.

Popular thought says the Orioles won't be in the pennant chase a few months from now. But that doesn't matter today. Not in Week 1, not with the Orioles tied for first place. A battle of division front-runners at Camden Yards? What's not to love?

Life right now is like those first couple of dates in a relationship. You and the 2006 season are getting to know each other, and everything feels so special and new. What you like overshadows what you don't like, and hope and possibility occupy your every waking minute.

The endless possibilities are what keep us at our barstools late into the night, plotting six-team trades, second-guessing defensive replacements and debating why the entire season comes down to the Game 4 on the schedule.

The first week is the best because it can't possibly be overshadowed by disappointment. Orioles in the chase? Heck, the Orioles are leading the chase (magic number for Baltimore, Boston and Toronto is at 159).

The great unknown is what intrigues us because we look for any clues in these first couple of games that might give us a hint as to what the landscape will look like in September. Sure, it's absurd, but talking about baseball can be more fun than watching it sometimes.

In the first week of the season, Ramon Hernandez is a front-runner for the Most Valuable Player award (and on pace to bat .625, which would set a major league record), and Nick Markakis is a lock for Rookie of the Year. In fact, Greek mythology professors will soon be flooding the ballpark to study him. If only every day was a Devil Ray day, right?

Thanks to a trio of such days, the offseason already seems like a success. The offense looked good for Games 1 and 2, and the pitching wasn't too shabby last night - a 2-0 Orioles loss.

The team didn't lose ground at a single offensive position and upgraded in left field and behind the plate. Compared with Opening Day one year ago, the Orioles may be better at first base and at designated hitter, too. When you're already resting Jay Gibbons, a reliable bat who was 4-for-8 before sitting out last night's game - you're in pretty good position.

Manager Sam Perlozzo's biggest problem right now is finding a way to get everyone playing time, no easy task when a number of players are all making a strong case. Don't think they don't wish every day was a Devil Rays day.

Put an asterisk next to the first three games' worth of statistics, though. While the rest of the baseball world rightfully takes aim at Barry Bonds, you'd think there'd be at least a minor outcry over Tampa Bay's performance-enhancing pitching staff. You don't need to launch an investigation to realize that when the Devil Rays pitch, opponents' performances tend to be enhanced.

These first few days were worth enjoying, if for no other reason than fans are about to be reminded that a full season includes some Red Sox days, too. The next three games will tell us what to take from the season-opening series. Was that really the Orioles offense? Was that the pitching we should expect? And where exactly did all of the Orioles' fans go?

With some pitching, some pop in the bat and a little luck, that feeling that fans have this week could carry over. The intrigue could linger. For a team with low expectations, you want fans to keep talking about what could be, not what could have been.

The dialogue in Week 1 tends to brim over with optimism. The truth is, every day isn't a Devil Ray day, and you can only take so much from this season-opening series. You want to know how good this Orioles team is? Pay attention these next three days.

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