On the evening of June 9, as the Baltimore Orioles and Florida Marlins slogged through a rainy game, the Orioles' frustrating season was sinking to new depths. The club was a season-worst 15 games under .500, 12 games out and in last place, and now, in the middle of the ninth inning, $65 million superstar Albert Belle and beleaguered manager Ray Miller were confronting each other in the dugout.
Whether by cause or coincidence, that moment seems to represent the point at which the Orioles' season turned in a new direction. Miller and Belle argued after Belle failed to run hard on a ground ball and Miller replaced him in right field. The Orioles held on to win the game, 4-2, and, after an off day, won the next game in Atlanta with Belle planted on the bench, swept the Braves, and kept winning until they arrived at this unlikely spot:
With six games this week against division rivals Boston and New York, the Orioles have won 10 of their last 11 games and suddenly have a chance to climb into the American League East race, a notion that would have seemed preposterous just two weeks ago.
"It's an important week," Miller said. "But it wouldn't be important if this last week wasn't important. When you play Boston or the Yankees you don't have to do much to fire the club up. . . . Obviously, if we have a good week, we'll be in good shape. But you can't do that thinking about next Friday. You have to think about today."
Today, the Orioles woke up 8 1/2 games behind the division-leading Yankees and enjoyed an off day that marked the end of a stretch in which they played 19 of 25 games on the road. By going 15-10, they may have saved their season from disaster.
Today they placed starting second baseman Delino DeShields on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Sunday, with a strained right hamstring. A roster move will be made prior to Tuesday's game. Middle infielder Jerry Hairston likely will be called up from Class AAA Rochester.
It isn't hard to find simple answers to the question of what turned the Orioles' season around. The Orioles' ERA was 6.49 in April and 5.02 in May, but is 4.43 in June. During the 10-1 stretch that began in Florida, Orioles starters are 8-1 with a 3.33 ERA and four complete games.
At the same time, the offense has begun producing the way it was designed to do. The club is hitting .320 in June. For the season, the team batting average, which was .249 on May 10, is a healthy .285.
Left fielder B.J. Surhoff enters the week with a career-high 21-game hitting streak, is hitting .358 during the streak and is a leading candidate to be an All-Star Game reserve. Third baseman Cal Ripken is hitting .358 since returning from the disabled list May 13. First baseman Will Clark is hitting .368 with 11 RBI during the 10-1 stretch. Designated hitter Harold Baines is hitting .437 since May 12, with seven homers and 20 RBI.
Belle, whose batting average dipped to .232 on May 12, has hit .421 with three homers and six RBI in nine games since being benched the day after his dugout argument with Miller, raising his season average to .271.
The Orioles point to all those numbers, all that production, all those strong pitching performances to explain their sudden surge. Although the team's 10-1 stretch began the night of Miller's confrontation with Belle, for the most part the Orioles refuse to link the two.
"Absolutely zero significance," said infielder Jeff Reboulet. "That's a stretch."
Although it is more difficult to calculate than batting average and ERA, there may have been a psychological change that came over the Orioles after Miller benched Belle. Miller regained a large part of the respect that had eroded in the clubhouse in the course of the disastrous first two months, some Orioles have indicated. And undeniably, there is a better clubhouse chemistry right now.
Belle has not spoken to reporters since spring training.
"Maybe we needed this time to meld together, with all these new guys," Miller said. "And with [catcher] Charles Johnson on his second time around facing American League clubs, and getting Will back from the disabled list, and getting our pitchers straightened out -- maybe all that had to happen to put things in perspective."
But Clark, the vocal leader of the clubhouse, downplays any chemistry questions. "I don't look at that at all," he said. "We've had plenty of time to play together. . . . There's nothing you can put your finger on [to explain it]. It's just baseball. We've had all facets of the game working."
Still, isn't it possible that Belle's spat with his manager gave him the impetus to break out of his season-long slump, gave Miller the confidence to manage aggressively and gave the veteran-loaded Orioles a rallying point?
Asked if he could draw any conclusions from the timing of the incident and the 10-1 stretch that has put the Orioles on the fringes of the division race, Miller chose his words carefully.
"I don't really want to" draw any conclusions, he said. "Everything that happens, happens and has to happen at the right time. If anything, maybe that scenario took some pressure off Albert. I don't know. But I don't want that to be the reason for our success. We're pitching good and we're playing good."
Data: Orioles vs. Boston Red Sox, today, Wednesday and Thursday at 7:35 p.m.
Tickets: 5,000 remaining for today, 4,000 for Wednesday, 2,000 for Thursday.
TV: HTS (today, Wednesday); WBDC-50, WJZ-13 (Thursday).
Radio: WTOP-1500, WBAL-1090, WTOP-FM-107.7, WMJS-FM-92.7.
Records: Orioles 31-37; Red Sox 40-29.
Pitchers: Tuesday -- Orioles RHP Sidney Ponson (7-4, 3.68 ERA) vs. RHP Mark Portugal (3-6, 5.56); Wednesday -- Orioles RHP Juan Guzman (3-5, 4.75) vs. RHP Bret Saberhagen (2-2, 2.70); Thursday -- Orioles RHP Mike Mussina (9-3, 3.64) vs. RHP Jin Ho Cho (1-0, 4.50).