Despite having lost five of their last seven games, including a three-game sweep to the Kinston Indians at the beginning of the week, the Frederick Keys still are within striking distance of first place in the Class A Carolina League Northern Division early in the second half of the season.

After going 20-49 in the first half, the Keys have started the second half 11-15 and through Thursday were four games behind the first-place Wilmington Blue Rocks.

Improved pitching has been the hallmark of the month's comparative success. Tony Neal has five saves and a 2.79 ERA this month. Right-hander Hayden Penn is 3-1 with a 3.49 ERA in five starts in July, including 20 strikeouts in 28 innings. In nine total starts with the Keys, Penn is 5-2 with a 3.02 ERA.

The Keys are batting only .240 in July, but they have gotten a lot production from Branden Florence, a designated hitter who joined the team in June. Florence is hitting .360 and slugging .602, with nine home runs and 37 RBI in 43 games. Entering last night's game he had a 16-game hitting streak, the longest active streak in the Carolina League and third longest this year. He is batting .365, with five home runs and only five strikeouts during the streak.

In addition, third baseman Tripper Johnson and outfielder Cory Keylor have contributed some pop to the lineup. Johnson was the league's player of the month in June after hitting .355, while Keylor is batting .304 in July with two home runs.

* LITTLETON DUE BACK: B.J. Littleton, the Keys' starting center fielder, is scheduled to return to the lineup this weekend after being suspended for 15 games for using a banned substance. Littleton, a former seventh-round draft pick of the Orioles in 2000, is batting .288 with one home run this season.