Slowly, and almost with the secrecy of a high-clearance weapons project, the Baltimore Orioles have reassembled their full arsenal.
The Birds haven't said much -- no preening of feathers -- but now, just in time, they are as ready as they'll ever be to meet the New York Yankees in combat.
If the O's in their torrid state, cannot finish erasing the Yank's 11-game lead, then it is not within their abilities. And the New Yorkers will have earned both a division flag and genuine congratulations.
This is the bona fide Baltimore ballclub -- a defending champion which has played .702 baseball for the past seven weeks -- whom the Yankees will meet eight times in the next 11 days.
As a rule, baseball teams rise or fall in long, slow progressions which are measured in weeks and months rather thandays, A club's confidence, its style, is constructed piece by piece. And it is disassembled the same way.
"We had a long gradual improvement --and we had a lot to improve," says veteran Mark Belanger. "But it is only in the past two weeks that we have played like ourselves."
"The feeling is back," Mike Flanagan said simply.
Cynical Las Vegas, as is its realistic wont, insists that the odds against the Orioles are at least 15 to 1. New Yorkers, doubtless, know better. They saw all this happen just two years ago -- but in reverse.
Then, the defending champ in questionwas the Yanks, who fell 14 games behind before trampling Boston.
Those with a feeling for baseball trend and flow probably sense the exciting truth of the matter: the AL East race has reached a point where it's "pick'em."
The Yankees still have a 5 1/2-game lead (five in the lost column). And that is just about how much "weight" advantage they probably need to even up this thoroughbred stakes race which still has a two-month stretch run.
The common perception is that the Orioles are the team under pressure in the coming days, needing a dramatic string of wins to catch the Yanks.
More likely, the strain is about even. it is the Yankees who need a knockout now, before the O's gain even more assurance. If, 11 days hence, the Birds were merely not further behind than they are now, theirs would still be a tenable position.
Because the Orioles, like few teams of quality, are better suited for long, strong running than they are for crisis showdowns against teams of roughly equal skill. Most great teams crush their foes head to head. These Orioles torment you from afar bygrinding bad teams to dust while you must watch the scoreboard helplessly.
With most teams, a streak of .700 ball or better is a temporary hot spell. With the current O's, it is a condition that can linger indefinitely. Once they lock in, the Birds seem capable of endless, efficient, unspectacular victories.
Last season, Baltimore played at a .732 pace for 97 consecutive games and stayed over .700 for a period of 129 straight games.
So, the Birds' 23-14 record since June 15 could be merely the preamble to an interminable excellance that could last the final 58 games of the season.
During the past 11 seasons, Manager Earl Weaver's teams have had a .648 percentage in September. And six times in the '70s,Orioles teams played over .650 during August and September combined.
Those are just dry numbers. Like the fact that the 1979 Orioles ripped off streaks of 15-1, 15-1 and 15-2. "Until now (10 wins in the last 11 games), we haven't had one Orioletype streak all year," said Ken Singleton. "We assume we're going to have those."
Other soporific numbers help the Orioles sleep well. After their 11-day Armageddon, the Birds have only six oftheir last 46 games against teams with a percentage better than .520. In other words, they close the year with seven weeks of games against mediocre orhad teams. Not a New York, Kansas City or Milwaukee in the bunch.
The Yankees have an identical trip on the same dates to the same three cities -- Seattle, California and Oakland. But, in recent times the pinstripes have fared as poorly on the Est Coast as the Orioles have well.
One month from today -- Sept. 7 -- the Orioles and Yankees both come home from the Pacific. If a differentteam were in first place then, most fans would be flabbergasted. But perhaps they should not be.
It is not tradition or schedule that makes the Orioles most optimistic. It is the particulars of their own turnabout.
The slumpers, one by one, have awakened, until now almost the whole lineup seems to be working on some sort of hitting streak. Before last night, Singleton had hit .371 for his last 48 games, and Eddie Murray .370 for his last 22. John Lowenstein was at .360 for 40 games, while Bennie Ayala was .338 for 32 games.
The enumeration is long, but the bottom line simple. Despite all Weaver's whimpering about lost home run power, the Orioles had exactly the same number of runs scored as a year ago after 104 games -- 509. More important, Baltimore pitching, with a 3:30 ERA since June 15, compared to 3.92 before, now looks familiar.
All four starters -- Steve Stone, Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer -- who will face the Yanks, now have winning percentages of .600 or better. And the heinous bullpen (3-12 on June 15) has lost only games since then, and now has a new (andapparently willing) worker in short-man Dennis Martinez.
While the Orioles have jelled, the Yankees have sputtered, going 10-10 since their high point of July 14, while the Orioles have been 17-5.
All this, of course, can change suddenly on Friday when Ron Guidry faces Palmer before a roaring throng in Yankee Stadium. One splendid, slender victory can lead to a tidalwave of others for either team.
These Orioles are not as self-as-sured as the midseason '79 crew -- not yet, at least. What Willie Stargell did to unnerve them in the World Series, Reggie Jackson could do now.
"Frankly, we don't know how to pitch him," said Flanagan. "He's changed his stance totally. Once, he was weak against fast balls high and away -- he'd hit every one in the air tocenter field. Now, he pulls that pitch halfway up the bleachers. Everybody's looking for his new 'hole'. If there is one."
What is most to the point, however, is that a baseball misfortune has been avoided. Just a month ago it appeared that baseball's best division (with six of seven teams above .500) would not have even a hint of a pennant race. And, just as bleak, that the likeable defending champion Orioles would make only a woeful cameo appearance this season.
Now, at least for the next few days, and perhaps for much longer, that hope of a suitable pennant showdown willcome to pass.