Orioles 4, Devil Rays 0

Their last two games have provided the Baltimore Orioles a glimpse of what their front office envisioned this winter, as it subtly remade the team's starting rotation. In back-to-back wins over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Orioles' two starting-pitcher signees have delivered definitive performances, resulting in the team's return to .500.

Presumably, the fact the Orioles' manager has been absent for this development is merely coincidental.

With Manager Mike Hargrove still in Texas attending to his ailing mother, bench coach Sam Perlozzo remained undefeated in his second game as the fill-in skipper, as the Orioles feasted once again on the division's weakest sibling in tonight's 4-0 victory, Baltimore's first shutout win since last July 2 at Anaheim.

One night after lefty Omar Daal righted himself in a crisp victory, veteran right-hander Rick Helling had his most effective outing of the young season, becoming the first Orioles starter to go eight innings, while allowing only four hits.

Tonight's game drew a crowd of only 18,017 to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, setting another all-time low at the 12-year-old stadium. The previous low of 18,470 came April 3 against Cleveland. Before this season, the Orioles never had drawn fewer than 20,000 at Camden Yards, and as recently as 2001 had never drawn fewer than 30,000 to the stadium for a regularly scheduled game.

Tonight's win completed the Orioles' second consecutive series victory -- something they had not pulled off since early July of last season -- and returned them to .500 (9-9) for the first time since the season's second game.

The Orioles can only hope their return to .500 does not induce the same sort of tailspin it did in 2002. Last Aug. 23, the Orioles finally climbed back to 63-63 after flirting with .500 for much of the summer, but proceeded to lose 32 of their final 36 games, the worst finish in the last century of baseball history.

This time, there is reason to believe the Orioles can push past the break-even mark, as they play the historically awful Detroit Tigers six times and the Devil Rays six more times in the next three weeks.

"This is the part of our schedule we need to make progress in," Perlozzo said. "[But] I think it's a little early to be worrying about .500 right now."

Tonight, Helling (1-1) revealed the form that had made him a double-digit winner the last five seasons. He yielded seven base runners, but permitted only two to advance into scoring position, while wiping out three on double-play grounders.

As it was the previous day, tonight's win was so crisp that Perlozzo had hardly any major strategic moves to consider -- especially after Jerry Hairston's two-run homer in the sixth inning gave the Orioles a four-run cushion -- and again his biggest decision was when to pull his starting pitcher. Helling wanted to go out for the ninth, but put up only light resistance when Perlozzo told him he was done.

"Those are tough decisions," Perlozzo said. "I wouldn't have expected him to want to come out."

"If I went back out there and threw [a shutout]," Helling said, "it's still meaningless in the grand scheme of things. I'm not going to break anyone's record for shutouts."

Orioles Notes: Rita Ann Hargrove had surgery Sunday night in Amarillo, Tex., to remove her infected gall bladder, and Mike Hargrove could return to the Orioles by Tuesday night or Wednesday if her recovery goes well.

"It's still touch-and-go," said Perlozzo, who has remained in daily contact with Hargrove. "But things are looking pretty good, and I think she's on the right track." . . .

Designated hitter David Segui, who has not played since straining his right hamstring Thursday night, did some light running for the first time before tonight's game and said he hopes to return to the lineup in a couple of days. The Orioles still have not ruled out placing him on the disabled list if he can't return by the weekend.

Orioles' Jerry Hairston makes haste back to first in first inning. He belted two-run homer in the sixth inning as team improved to 9-9.O's starter Rick Helling regains form of yesteryear, yielding four hits, no runs in eight innings.