-- It took all of one week for the 2003 American League East Division standings to fall into their seemingly predestined order -- New York in first place, then Boston, then Toronto, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, respectively -- the same order, in fact, in which those five teams have finished for the last five seasons in a row, an unprecedented historical quirk.

As bad as the Baltimore Orioles have been since their last playoff appearance in 1997 -- the team's five straight losing seasons are also unprecedented in its history -- they have managed to avoid the division cellar in all those years, thanks to the grace of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

When the Orioles and Devil Rays renew their acquaintance Tuesday night in St. Petersburg -- in the first of 10 games between the teams this month -- the games might not lead the nightly "SportsCenter," but they will go a long way toward determining whether the Orioles can hold off the Devil Rays for another year in the race to avoid last place.

One might not know it from their 2-4 opening homestand last week, but the Orioles are enjoying the easiest stretch of their schedule right at the start, playing 32 of their first 44 games against four teams -- Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Detroit and Kansas City -- that averaged 100 losses apiece in 2002.

By contrast, the Orioles end their season with a brutal stretch in which they play 30 of their final 36 against four teams -- New York, Boston, Oakland and Seattle -- that averaged 98 wins last season.

If the Orioles' first six games were any indication, the team will face a season-long struggle to score runs, just as it did in the final six weeks of 2002, when they averaged 2.9 runs per game and finished 4-32. Last week, the Orioles scored two or fewer runs in four of their first six games.

"I'm not okay with the fact we're 2-4," Manager Mike Hargrove said. "But two of [the losses] we could have won with a break here or there. . . . I'm pleased with the effort. It's something to build on."

Following last season's horrific finish, the Orioles made only one change to their core lineup -- letting veteran shortstop Mike Bordick leave via free agency and replacing him with Deivi Cruz -- apparently believing the return of veteran designated hitter David Segui, who was injured for most of 2002, would change the face of their lineup.

However, Segui, counted on to fill the crucial No. 3 spot in the Orioles' batting order, missed the first four games of the season with a broken thumb, then returned in the less-demanding No. 7 spot, singling twice in his first two games back.

The Orioles are hitting only .230 -- even less than they did in 2002 (.246), when they finished last in the league in hitting. The team batting average drops to .205 with runners in scoring position. Jerry Hairston, Gary Matthews Jr., B.J. Surhoff and Jeff Conine -- who have been the first four hitters in the team's regular lineup thus far -- are batting a combined .192 with just five RBI.

It has hardly mattered what type of pitcher they are facing: The Orioles have been shut down by a rookie right-hander (Cleveland's Ricardo Rodriguez), a soft-throwing lefty (Cleveland's Brian Anderson), a bona fide ace (Boston's Pedro Martinez) and a knuckleball specialist (Boston's Tim Wakefield).

"We're not scoring enough runs," said catcher Brook Fordyce. "We're not even close to scoring enough runs."

The Orioles did far more tinkering with their pitching staff over the winter, importing veteran starters Rick Helling and Omar Daal -- allowing prospects such as John Stephens and Sean Douglass to return to the minors to continue their development -- plus reliever Kerry Ligtenberg.

Daal and Helling, who will pitch for the Orioles in the first two games of the Tampa Bay series, had credible outings in their Orioles debuts last week.

However, Daal received only two runs of support, while Helling was on the wrong end of a shutout. If that is all the Orioles' offense can muster, the team might as well have saved the money on the veterans and kept sending the youngsters to the mound.

Although the Orioles' pitching staff is infinitely deeper and more experienced than the Devil Rays' -- which ultimately should keep the Orioles from sliding into last place this season -- scouts last season began to opine that the Devil Rays have a more talented collection of position players, especially their young ones.

Certainly, the Orioles have no young players at the major league level who are as talented as Tampa Bay left fielder Carl Crawford and center fielder Rocco Baldelli, a pair of rookies who are batting .342 and .333, respectively, as the first two hitters in the team's lineup.

The Orioles, in fact, have only one rookie on their roster -- shortstop Jose Morban, a project player who is not expected to play this season beyond an occasional late-inning substitution during a blowout.