Boston Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette and Manager Jimy Williams were confronted with the evidence Thursday night at Camden Yards. They had no choice but to plead guilty to charges of rampant competence.

The Boston lineup -- which is 9 1/2 games in front of the $84 million Orioles in the American League East -- included Creighton Gubanich, Lou Merloni, Brian Daubach, Damon Buford and Darren Lewis.

Anyone who can name the positions played by these gentlemen in Boston's 2-1 victory over Mike Mussina and the Orioles should get free tickets to the All-Star Game next month at Fenway Park.

The better-known stars of this Boston operation were Troy O'Leary, Mike Stanley, John Valentin and Jose Offerman. (Nomar Garciaparra was out with a minor quadriceps injury.) On the mound was Mark Portugal, who has averaged only six wins a year for the last three seasons.

Yet with this collection of rookies, fill-ins, career bush leaguers and journeymen, Boston beat the Orioles' best assemblage of household names: Mussina, Brady Anderson, Albert Belle, Cal Ripken, Will Clark, Harold Baines and B.J. Surhoff. Worse, they beat them in the kind of tight game that really measures who wants to win most, who executes best, who enjoys pressure and who shies from it.

So, Messrs. Duquette and Williams, do you think your Anti-Rotisserie League juggernaut can hold off the surging Orioles for 90 more games?

"We just pay attention to the next game," said Williams, deadpan. "That's all we can afford to think about." Poor little overachieving Red Sox. Then, Williams grinned and choked back what passes for his chuckle. Nothing is sweeter than knowing you're undermanned but winning because you play the game better. Long ago, the Orioles did it for years at a time.

The much-flayed Duquette, second only in popularity in New England to the Salem witches, enjoys pointing out the origins of all his mighty heirs to Teddy Ballgame and Yaz. This one's a minor league free agent. That one was released by his previous team. The DH was ready to play in Japan after being stuck in the minors for nine years. For all this, he paid $25 million less than the Orioles for their 32-39 record.

Thousands of fans Thursday night rooted for the Orioles, winners of 11 of their last 14 games, to take the rubber game of this series. Cut that wild-card lead. Start a great comeback to salvage a season that seemed lost.

With more than 90 games left, there's still enough time for a team as talented as the Orioles to catch a club with limitations as obvious as the Red Sox. However, Orioles fans may feel a bit lonely in their enthusiasm for that quest. Under normal all-American underdog-favoring conditions, any true baseball fan would staunchly stand with the Red Sox.

Last season, when they still had Mo Vaughn, the Red Sox squeezed every drop out of their talent to win 92 games. Now, they have no Mo. Star closer Tom Gordon is out "indefinitely" with serious elbow problems. That forces No. 2 starter Tim Wakefield into the bullpen. This is a club that ought to be life and death to win 85 games. Yet they are 42-30 -- same pace as '98.

Part of the reason is the Red Sox are a true team. They run into walls, the way Merloni and Buford have in this series, collecting major bruises to make catches on foul balls headed into the seats. The Red Sox block the plate, the way Jason Varitek did on Cal Ripken on Wednesday. They take the extra base.

"They play hard. They get after it. We leave it all between the white lines and see where we are after nine innings," said Williams, living up to his reputation as such a consummate lifer that, while in uniform, he has never said anything which wasn't a baseball cliche. "They take a lot of pride in their work. They'll run into a wall. There's no stat for that, is there?"

Jimy, it's summer. Let's have some more of that old-time baseball talk. "You know what I'm thinking about? Finding a way to win the next game," said Williams. "I know that seems too simple. But that's the way I deal with things. We just go play."

Thank you, Jimy. All those statements would probably apply to the Orioles, too, except, occasionally, playing hard, getting after it, leaving it all between the white lines, taking a lot of pride in their work, running into walls, focusing on the game at hand and not playing for their stats.

"It all comes back to pitching and catching the ball," Williams said.

Actually, when the issue is the Orioles and Red Sox, it all comes down to pitching. On paper, the Orioles, anchored by Mussina, look like they ought to be pretty good. Yet they're 11th in the league in ERA, even after a streak of pitching that Ripken calls "absolutely extraordinary." The Red Sox, built around Pedro Martinez, also look like they ought to be pretty good. Yet Boston is No. 1 in the league in ERA and shutouts.

"Maybe we've learned that pitching [not hitting] is the most important thing to have in Fenway," said Duquette. "[Former Red Sox player] Mel Parnell said that when you pitched in Fenway, you had to get 30 or 31 outs a game, not 27, because foul territory was so small and the left field wall was so close."

When the Orioles have been desperate for starting pitching this year, they've tabbed Jason Johnson (8.25 ERA), Rocky Coppinger (9.19) and Doug Linton (6.17). When they needed help, the Red Sox brought up two 23-year-old farm hands, Brian Rose (4-0, 1.80) and Jin Ho Cho (1-0) and actually improved themselves.

At the moment, the Orioles are three games into a 16-game test against the three teams in the AL East ahead of them -- Boston, New York and Toronto. If their starting pitching can survive, so can they. However, that's an enormous "if" against strong teams. Many fans see only through the eyes of loyalty. They view this chunk of the season as the Orioles' chance to succeed grandly. It's more likely that the next two weeks are about surviving so that August and September still have some meaning.

While the Orioles are playing the Yankees, the Red Sox will be meeting the .500 White Sox. And while the Orioles get Toronto, Boston meets lowly last-place Tampa Bay. That's why this week's head-to-head series was so important. The Orioles had their best starters ready, while missing the mighty Martinez. The Orioles were healthy. The Sox were banged up.

Yet it was Boston that gained ground.

If the Orioles take away any memories from these three nights, they should not be memories of themselves, but, rather, images of the Red Sox. Sometimes, the Orioles play with abandon, stay focused and drive each other like a true team. But, often, they don't. The Red Sox always do. That's why Gubanich, Varitek, Merloni, Daubach and Buford won this series. That's why Boston is 9 1/2 games ahead of the Orioles. And likely to stay there.