This victory belongs in clutch-win column

April 07, 2007|By PETER SCHMUCK

It's not a particularly good sign when you can reasonably cast the fourth game of the season as a must-win situation, but give the Orioles credit for rising to the occasion.

Make that any occasion.

The sweep in Minnesota was just ugly enough to magnify the significance of the second series of the season, as strange as that might sound to anyone outside the Baltimore area. It didn't take much to scratch the tissue-thin veneer of spring optimism and expose the huge reservoir of fan fatalism underneath.

The big question going in was not whether the Orioles might be good enough to compete with the New York Yankees this year, but whether they would still be looking for their first victory when the defending American League champion Detroit Tigers arrived at Oriole Park on Monday for the home opener.

And if that dispiriting scenario became reality, how soon would it be before the inevitable comparisons with past terrible seasons are made?

It was against this gloomy backdrop that young Adam Loewen entered the lion's den known as Yankee Stadium last night and removed the zero from in front of the Orioles' win-loss record. He battled through five difficult innings and benefited from some big defensive plays (Imagine that!) and delivered the "W" before any more season-opening suspense had a chance to build.

The hitters chimed in, too, on a night when the Orioles did everything they didn't do those three unenchanted evenings at the Metrodome.

They got a solid start. They got some big hits. They overcame mistakes. And the new bullpen pulled the bacon out of the fire in the late innings to assure that the Orioles would not start the season 0-4 for the first time since 1988. (And we all know what happened that year.) It could have been prettier, but it could not have been better for all concerned.

"We just need to get the first one under our belt, and when we do, we can relax a little bit," manager Sam Perlozzo said before the game.

Maybe relax is not the right word with shaky fifth starter Steve Trachsel set to take the mound today, but it's probably fair to assume that everyone in the Orioles' clubhouse was - at the very least - relieved to be out of the winless category with two more chances to win a series in the Bronx.

"Definitely, the big thing was to get a win tonight on a very cold night," said designated hitter Kevin Millar. "Now we have a chance to do some good stuff here."

The O's were not the only team to enter Easter weekend with an 0-3 record, but you can be fairly sure they were the only team with the pending weight of a lost decade planted firmly on their supposedly new and improved shoulders.

When the St. Louis Cardinals got swept by the New York Mets in their first regular-season series, all they had to do was look down at those gaudy World Series rings to remind themselves that it's a long season. The Houston Astros lost three straight to the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, but they are only one year removed from their first appearance in the Fall Classic. The Philadelphia Phillies had four straight seasons of 85 or more victories to cushion the blow when the Atlanta Braves won three in a row at Citizens Bank Park.

The Orioles are sitting on nine straight losing seasons, or maybe it would be more accurate to say those nine straight losing seasons are sitting on them.

In Minnesota, they looked very much like a team sagging under the weight of that losing legacy - a team that could not ignore its history and yet still seemed doomed to repeat it. When the Twins got through with them, you could almost hear a whole state full of discouraged baseball fans whisper "Here we go again" under its collective breath.

You also had to wonder whether the players were thinking the same thing.

"We've got quite a few new guys, so I hope that's not the case," Perlozzo said. "They all came into camp excited about the fact that we were a little better than we've been. I think they're pretty realistic about the fact that they've only played a couple of games. It's too early to worry about something like that."

It's also too early for must-win games, but last night qualified nonetheless.

"It was no time to panic," Perlozzo said, "but we needed to win a ballgame."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Listen to Peter Schmuck on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays and Sundays.

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