The last time the Baltimore Orioles won five straight games, it was the first week of May, and it was a mirage. The Orioles lost seven of their next eight. Their pitching fell into a funk from which it has only recently emerged. But there is reason to believe things are different now.

This winning streak, which was extended tonight with a 7-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals, finds the Orioles healthier, more cohesive and, above all, pitching much more assuredly.

"I don't know how far this will go, but if we continue to pitch like this we're going to win ballgames," said Manager Ray Miller. "How many? I don't know. But there's a ways to go. . . . Right now things are going well. I just hope we stay healthy."

Fortified by a ridiculously easy three-game sweep of the Atlanta Braves over the weekend, emboldened by the record-setting 22-1 victory that completed it, and stabilized by a week-long run of great pitching, the Orioles got another encouraging start from Scott Erickson (3-8) and at least one hit from every starter for the second straight game.

"It's starting to look like the game plan coming out of spring training," said first baseman Will Clark. "You can see something happening. When your pitcher gives you seven or eight solid innings, and your offense does a good job being opportunistic, you're going to win ballgames."

The Orioles have outscored opponents 44-6 during their winning streak.

"The guys just know each other better now," second baseman Delino DeShields said. "No excuses for the way we played earlier this season -- we stunk. But this is how we expected to play."

The amazing play of third baseman Cal Ripken continued, with two more hits and two RBI. The night after breaking club records with six hits and five runs, Ripken received a standing ovation from the Camden Yards crowd of 37,501 when his name was announced before his first at-bat, and Ripken responded by driving in the Orioles' first run with a groundout. The RBI was the 1,538th of his career, moving him past Joe DiMaggio for 32nd place all-time.

Ripken's 2-for-4 night raised his batting average five more points to .333. He also started an inning-ending double play with a spectacular diving stop of Chad Kreuter's grounder in the sixth.

Mike Bordick hit a three-run homer in the fourth, B.J. Surhoff singled in the first inning -- extending his hitting streak to 15 games (his second such streak this season) -- and designated hitter Harold Baines, back in the lineup after a week of interleague games rendered him almost invisible, reached base four times, on three walks and a single.

Thanks to their three-day mauling of the Braves, the Orioles came into tonight's game with their lowest earned-run average of the season (5.49) and their highest batting average since April 17 (.282).

In their previous two games, the Orioles had scored a total of nine runs in the first inning. Tonight they waited until the second inning to start roughing up starter Kevin Appier (6-5).

After Ripken's RBI groundout, catcher Mike Figga had an RBI single -- his first major league RBI -- and Brady Anderson brought in the third run with a shallow sacrifice fly to right, on which DeShields brazenly tagged and scored when Jermaine Dye's throw escaped catcher Kreuter.

Erickson turned in his second straight impressive start. His ERA, which stood at 8.44 on May 3, dropped to 6.17.

The difference between this Erickson and the Erickson who opened the season with five straight losses is slight -- a few more ground balls, a few extra inches of drop on his sinker, a few fewer mistakes. Tonight his mistakes stayed in the park. Twice, the Royals flew out to the warning track in center.

The Royals had at least two runners reach base in six of Erickson's eight innings, but Erickson made his best pitches on his biggest pitches, stranding all but one of those base runners -- Joe Randa led off the fifth with a walk, and scored on Carlos Beltran's groundout. Erickson also benefited from three double plays. The Royals were 0 for 13 against him with runners in scoring position.

"I'm still not where I want to be," Erickson said. "My velocity still isn't there yet. But at least I'm keeping the ball down."

CAPTION: Orioles second baseman Delino DeShields very well might be seeing stars after being upended by Royals' Chad Kreuter. DeShields's throw to first was too late for a double play.