These are the cold facts: The Baltimore Orioles entered this week with a chance to pull themselves back into the playoff race, but lost five of six games to the teams they are chasing, capped by today's 6-2 loss to the New York Yankees. The Orioles have lost five in a row and are the farthest out of first place they have been all season, 13 1/2 games back.
And this is the reasonable conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence at hand: The Orioles simply aren't good enough to contend in the American League East. If the first month of the season did not demonstrate it, this weekend did.
In three games against the division-leading Yankees, who won their fifth straight, the Orioles led for one half-inning after dropping two of three to Boston. Baltimore's starting pitcher was out-pitched in all three games with New York. Its bullpen lost one game and blew open the other two.
A week ago the Orioles had cause for optimism, but Manager Ray Miller was left trying to put a brave face on things. On Monday, the Orioles (32-42) move on to Rochester, N.Y., for an exhibition game against their Class AAA affiliate -- hoping that the storm system that was hovering over upstate New York on Sunday stays there and forces a cancellation -- then face 10 more games against teams within their division, against whom the Orioles are 4-17 this season.
"We had our hopes up because we came in to this week doing pretty well, and we got set back," Miller said. "But we have to suck it up. This is where we find out who's a man."
Miller said he tried not to play up the importance of this week when the homestand began, because "if you play this up as the biggest series of the year and what happened out there happens, you're totally destroyed," he said.
The lasting image of this weekend will be Luis Sojo, the Yankees' light-hitting backup shortstop, grinning as he rounded the bases in the ninth today with his first home run in nearly two years. Orioles left-handed reliever Arthur Rhodes is in the background of the image, head down, shoulders slumped.
Sojo's solo homer dashed the Orioles' hopes for a comeback and stretched the Yankees' lead to 4-2. It came on an 0-2 hanging slider after Rhodes had blown two fastballs by Sojo, who came into the game batting .186 and was starting only because Derek Jeter is nursing a tight hamstring.
"I think [Rhodes] was doing me a favor" by throwing a slider, Sojo said, "because that guy throws hard."
"I get a little upset with pitch selection," Miller said. "You throw two balls by the guy, you don't give him something to hit [on 0-2]. If your thought is to bounce a breaking ball in there because he's cheating to get to the fastball, that's a good thought. But if you hang it, it's a bad pitch. . . . I know he doesn't mean to hang a breaking ball, but he gives him a pitch to hit and he hits it out of the park."
Sojo's homer also triggered the kind of ugly inning that has become familiar to the sellout crowd of 48,020 that packed Oriole Park at Camden Yards on a hot, sticky afternoon. The homer was followed by a double, two singles and an error by third baseman Cal Ripken. By the time the inning was over, New York's lead was 6-2 and Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, who had been warming up in anticipation of a meaningful ninth, seemed a superfluous weapon.
Nowhere do the Yankees and Orioles appear farther apart than in their bullpens. The Yankees' is a model of functionality. Today, with little room for error, Yankees Manager Joe Torre was able to save left-handed specialist Mike Stanton for one situation: to face Harold Baines and Will Clark with one out and the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the eighth.
Miller stayed with Baines and Clark -- both of whom have good career numbers against Stanton -- even though right-handed hitter Jeff Conine was available off the bench. Stanton retired Baines on a ground ball and Clark on a strikeout.
Meanwhile, the Orioles' bullpen has not functioned well recently. Rhodes took over in the eighth for starter Sidney Ponson (7-5), who battled unsuccessfully against Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez (9-6). Rhodes retired five straight batters and was within one strike of sending the game to the bottom of the ninth with the Orioles trailing by one.
Right now the Orioles' bullpen seems to be made up of two groups: those whom Miller trusts and uses every chance he gets, and those he doesn't trust and rarely uses. And the latter group appears to be growing.
"The only problem I have right now is trying to get some sequence out of the bullpen," Miller said. "You can't manage trying to duck three of four people and trying to go with two. Somebody's got to start doing their job. But those are the people you've got, and you have to stay with them and forge ahead. . . .
"If the bullpen does reasonably well [this series], I don't know if we win any more, but they're very close games."
Orioles notes: Orioles officials said they expect all 25 players to be in Rochester for Monday's exhibition, along with nine minor leaguers who will fill out their active roster. The Orioles won't use any of their active pitchers.
"We have to try to do something representative," Miller said. "But we also have to use common sense."
Right fielder Albert Belle, who on Tuesday posted a petition to boycott the game, is expected to play. However, while with the Chicago White Sox last season, Belle skipped a similar exhibition game, opting to pay a fine instead. The Orioles likely would fine a player $15,000 for failing to show for Monday's game.
CAPTION: Coach Willie Randolph congratulates Bernie Williams for first of two solo home runs off Sidney Ponson; his 13 homers tie Tino Martinez for team lead.