The baseball season starts this week.

That crack in the cool air isn't autumn. It's the lap gun for September.

What's been going on for six months is just preamble: getting to know the characters, their cast of mind, their team-family histories, their ominous flaws. Soon, the truth will be known.

One reason baseball absorbs us is because it so reliably provides a nasty, honest September. Give us pennant races, we beg. And the sport obliges, offering unrelenting "entertainment" that cuts so close to the bone, with competition so fair, yet harsh, that each year we're caught by surprise at its power.

Forget the playoffs and World Series, if you must, but keep September and those first days of October that toll like a deep final bell.

Presumably, the Baltimore Orioles, winners of 12 of their last 13, haven't forgotten all this. The Orioles probably are about to be thrown into the middle of a three-way stretch run with Milwaukee and Boston that will culminate with two final weeks of divine madness.

Everybody thinks that Kansas City-California, Atlanta-Los Angeles and St. Louis-Philadelphia are the races to watch. And, of course, they are. But there's also a special tingle in the possibilities in the AL East.

First, a dose of facts.

On July 26, the Brewers began a streak of 38 games of which 36 were against losing teams. Unusual? Unheard of. A true scheduling fluke.

On the same date, by coincidence, the Orioles began 23 consecutive games against winning teams -- all of them in the AL's top six in winning percentage.

On Aug. 17, after the Orioles had finished their 23-game trauma with a 9-14 record, they'd fallen from three games behind Milwaukee to 7 1/2 games out.

The Orioles felt battered, nearly demoralized. Yet their vital signs probably were better than they should have been. The Brewers, who began 13-11 against the weaklings, failed to administer the kill.

When does the worm turn? And how far?

The process already has begun. With their 12-of-13 run, the Orioles have regained equilibrium and moved to five games back.

The date for a shift of fortune may be Friday when the Brewers face an even worse schedule than Baltimore did five weeks ago -- closing the season with 29 straight games against winners. Another fluke.

Even more chilling, the Brewers will play their final 13 games against Baltimore and Boston. In effect, Milwaukee gets double-teamed by the Orioles and Red Sox at the finish. Boston or Baltimore might easily end up winning the pennant for the other by beating the Brewers, while falling short itself.

"We've been very aware of how our schedule changes," Harry Dalton, Milwaukee's general manager, said this week. "That was a factor in our trading for Don Sutton."

The question isn't: will Baltimore and Boston gain ground on Milwaukee over the rest of the season? They'll have a hard time not giving the appearance of making a noble pennant push. The question is: will either Boston or Baltimore do a better job with its built-in comeback than the Brewers did with their built-in chance for a runaway?

The Brewers missed the kill; can the Orioles or Red Sox make the comeback?

Between Baltimore and Boston, the more likely survivor probably is Baltimore. The Red Sox may have more gumption, better team morale. But they're under .500 since May 23 and have lousy starters -- not the usual pennant mix.

The Orioles have some momentum, though their self-assurance remains low. Their sometimes testy locker room needs a quick remedial course in "I'm Okay, You're Okay."

Odd as it seems, Manager Earl Weaver announcing his retirement a year early is one of the Orioles' problems, though it's hardly Weaver's fault. The Orioles seem to have been in the process of divorcing themselves from Weaver. In a sense, his retirement at such a young age (52) is felt as being akin to a father deserting his family.

Enough psycho-babble. Every Oriole has a different prescription for what the team must do to have a September stretch run worthy of the club's tradition. After all, in Weaver's 14 years, his teams have played .634 ball after Sept. 1.

"The key is Scotty (McGregor)," says Weaver of his southpaw with tendinitis. "Either Scotty comin' back or whoever I choose to take his place (rookie Storm Davis or Sammy Stewart) doing the job.

"We got three (dependable starters) right now," says Weaver of Jim Palmer, Dennis Martinez and Mike Flanagan, who are on winning streaks of 10, four and three games, respectively. "But we ain't gonna make it with three."

Go back over the stretch runs of the last two decades (in an excellent reference such as John Warner Davenport's "Baseball's Pennant Races: A Graphic View") and the message is simple: insanity is the rule, not the exception. In any short time frame -- like a month -- baseball is a game of streaks; and, in September, pressure and adrenaline exaggerate all tendencies.

When watching baseball in September, always try to anticipate the genuinely spectacular so that you can relish it as it's happening. You'll be rewarded far more often than you suspect.