If you, a Washington-area baseball fan, have been following the Montreal Expos this season -- poring over box scores, scribbling down potential 2005 Opening Day lineups, fantasizing about Jose Vidro with "Senators" etched across his chest -- you have to be asking yourself something these days: Do you really want this team?

Not this team.

Can't they relocate the Devil Rays instead? (More about them later.) The Expos' story, as it pertains to their on-field performance while dealing with the logistical issues surrounding baseball's ownership of the franchise, was cute for a while. Then it was sad. Then it was pathetic.

And now, it is simply ugly. The Expos have baseball's worst record (21-45) and largest first-place deficit (15 games). Before scoring 17 runs on 18 hits last night, they had the lowest batting average (.235) and fewest runs per game (3.04).

Sad to say, it appears that Frank Robinson has lost it -- "it" referring to his managing touch, his clubhouse and, perhaps, his marbles.

His tirade against the umpires Wednesday night -- in which, as anyone who saw "SportsCenter" that night surely recalls, Robinson made a "choke" sign when the umps blew a call on an obvious foul ball that was ruled a homer for the Minnesota Twins -- is one thing.

But more disturbing are the signs that Robinson has lost his clubhouse, the ultimate sign of doom for a manager. His criticism of his players through the media has grown more pointed, and before one game this week, he resorted to putting up a blank lineup card and daring his players to put their own names down wherever they saw fit. That same day, veteran outfielder Carl Everett (think, "Uh-oh") called a players-only meeting in which, according to one report on Montreal local television, players discussed how to approach General Manager Omar Minaya about getting Robinson fired.

Minaya, however, moved quickly to try to defuse the situation, saying Robinson is not at fault and blaming the team's ills on injuries and the team's brutal schedule (which, per MLB edict, includes 22 "home" games in Puerto Rico).

Meantime, the ultra-classy Vidro told reporters: "From my point of view, Frank is safe here, and that's in everybody's head. I told Omar, 'There is nobody you can blame but us [players]. There's [only] so much you can do when the team is not scoring."

As nice as it would be to have a respected Hall of Famer such as Robinson, who is still a hero in the region for his glory days with the Orioles, on the bench if the Expos move to Washington, it seems increasingly likely his tenure with the franchise will be over when the season ends.

And were the Expos a real franchise with a real owner, Robinson might not even make it that far.

Bay Watch

Yes, that sound you heard this week was the Devil Rays whooshing past the Orioles into third place in the AL East, with one of the more stunning turnarounds you will see.

The Rays have won a franchise-record 10 straight games and are 21-6 since May 20 -- tying the New York Yankees for the best record in baseball over that span.

This, after they opened the season as only the third team in the last 72 years to go 40 or more games following Opening Day without winning back-to-back games, and after a putrid 3-19 stretch that ended May 19 -- the day before their current 21-6 stretch.

"At one point in time," Devil Rays all-purpose hitter Aubrey Huff told reporters, "I thought this might have been the worst team we ever had. But it's definitely changed, and it's fun."

The Devil Rays have made up 141/2 games on the free-falling Orioles since May 20 and never have been as high as third place this late in the season -- and they're not likely to stay there for very long.

But 21-6 is not a fluke. And in the AL East, the Orioles have quickly realized they need to be more worried about what is below them than what is above them.

Below-Market Value

The Carlos Beltran sweepstakes officially have begun in Kansas City, but Royals GM Allard Baird is not likely to get what he wants in return for the brilliant young center fielder -- a major league-ready catcher and third baseman.

The reason: Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, has made it clear Beltran will be a three-month rental only with no interest whatsoever in signing a long-term deal that would prevent him from testing free agency this winter.

(Well, Boras has not completely ruled out a signing, but by comparing Beltran's market value to that of Alex Rodriguez, it's essentially the same thing.) More than anything else, Baird was victimized by the team's success last season, which prevented him from trading Beltran when he was still a year and a half from free agency, which would have greatly enhanced his trade value.

Look for the Mets, Dodgers, Cubs, White Sox or Marlins to trade for Beltran this summer -- for much less than what Baird is currently asking for -- and look for the Orioles and Yankees, among others, to lead the pursuit this winter.

Around the League

Around the Mets' camp, folks are interpreting the firing of hitting coach Denny Walling this week as a warning sign to Manager Art Howe, who admitted publicly he was against the move. . . .

The Cleveland Indians have won 10 of their last 15 games -- including that 14-0 pasting of the Orioles on Monday -- and are beginning to look like potential buyers instead of sellers as the trade market heats up. (Bullpen help would be a good start.) The Indians are only 41/2 games out of first place in the eminently winnable AL Central. . . .

Aaron Sele's injury has forced the Anaheim Angels to put right-hander Ramon Ortiz back in their starting rotation, reducing the likelihood they will trade him to the Orioles for lefty reliever Buddy Groom. However, the Angels had a scout following the Orioles in Los Angeles this week, and the scout was seen leaving Dodger Stadium as soon as Groom came out of Wednesday night's game.

These are high times for Aubrey Huff, Fred McGriff and the Devil Rays, who have picked up 141/2 games on the Orioles since May 20.