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Orioles Conjure Up Glory Days In Their Seventh Straight Win

Orioles 7, Devil Rays 5

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 1, 2005; Page E01

BALTIMORE, April 30 -- Everything went exactly right for the Baltimore Orioles that season, 1997, the wire-to-wire year. Their stars stayed healthy and their role players performed like stars when called upon. They won when they were supposed to, and won when they were not. When they trailed by, say, four runs to a lesser team in the early stages of a game, the only question was whether the comeback win would be a methodical one or a spectacular one.

It is far, far, far too early to compare the 2005 Orioles team to that one -- say it again: far, far, far too early -- but it is indisputable that this team is doing things that have not occurred around here since that magical 1997 campaign. The Orioles' 7-5 comeback win over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on Saturday, which was both methodical and spectacular, was one more reminder of that.

Devil Rays left fielder Carl Crawford makes a diving catch on a fly ball by the Orioles' B. J. Surhoff. Baltimore's 16 wins are its most in April since 1997. (Chris Gardner -- Assciated Press)

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The victory, capped by a go-ahead three-run homer in the eighth inning by Brian Roberts -- who is hitting like the reincarnation of Brady Anderson, circa 1996 -- extended the team's winning streak to seven and completed an opening month in which the Orioles went 16-7, their most April wins since 1997. That was also the last year before this one in which the Orioles were in first place as the calendar turned to May.

"I can barely remember 1997," said outfielder B.J. Surhoff, one of two current Orioles (along with Rafael Palmeiro) who played on that team. "But, yeah, it was a pretty confident group, and we're playing with a lot of confidence right now. If we keep it within striking distance, we feel like we have a chance."

On Saturday, the Orioles fell behind by four runs early thanks to Sidney Ponson's shaky pitching, closed within 4-2 by the midway point, then tied the game on Miguel Tejada's two-run homer in the seventh inning -- a towering blast that landed in the last row of seats in the lower section of the left field stands, an area few have ever reached.

An inning later, with two on and two outs, Roberts turned on a slider from Devil Rays reliever Travis Harper and crushed it onto the flag court in right field for his eighth homer of the season -- or three more than he has hit in any of his six previous professional seasons.

"I don't have any answers [to the sudden power surge] anymore," said Roberts. "I ran out of stupid one-liners."

In 1996, Anderson, who had never hit more than 21 homers in a season, suddenly hit 50. Like Roberts, he batted leadoff and was previously thought to be more of a speed player than a power one.

"He's doing everything Brady did that year," Surhoff said. "He looks real relaxed at the plate."

Although the homers by Tejada and Roberts were the most memorable moments, the victory was constructed around several more subtle performances. Orioles players cited Ponson's ability to pitch into the seventh inning and keep the game close despite clearly lacking his best stuff. At one crucial point, in the third inning, he escaped a treacherous bases-loaded, no-out jam by inducing a rare 5-2-3 double play from Julio Lugo, then striking out Chris Singleton.

"Those," Roberts said, "were the three biggest outs of the game."

A year ago this time, Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli could seemingly do no right. His moves left onlookers, both in the dugout and beyond, scratching their heads, even on the rare occasions when they worked.

But now, Mazzilli -- like all the Orioles -- seemingly can do no wrong. He is having the kind of season in which he can stick seldom-used bench players Chris Gomez and Surhoff in his lineup, and watch as the former scrapes together three hits and scores a run, while the latter crushes a towering homer off Hendrickson in the fourth inning to draw the Orioles within 4-2.

It was still a two-run deficit, but for this confident team, against that awful opponent, at the end of this magical month -- it might as well have been a 10-run lead.

"In our situation, this is what we needed -- a big boost of confidence," Roberts said when asked about the Orioles' torrid start. "It's hard when you've had seven straight losing seasons to get that feeling."

While the vibe in the clubhouse is straight out of 1997, the feeling has not yet spread to the stands. An astonishingly low Saturday crowd of 19,920 witnessed the end of the Orioles' best April in eight years.

"I know we believe in ourselves," Roberts said. "Hopefully, our fans will too."

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