In the previous weeks of this season, as the Baltimore Orioles maintained their hold on first place in the American League East, Manager Lee Mazzilli gushed about the relationships in his clubhouse. He noticed many of the players have tended to linger after games, choosing to sit around and talk baseball for an extra half hour before heading out.

But in the last few days, the camaraderie has expanded to an even greater level. After each victory over the Astros this week, a group of players -- mostly relief pitchers -- has gathered in a corner of the clubhouse. And with every win the group has grown larger until Wednesday night about half the team filled the chairs and couches.

They sipped drinks, leaned back in their chairs and laughed loudly as the night grew long. Until it seemed they didn't want to leave. And they might not have.

Either way, it was the best sign yet that the chemistry in the Baltimore clubhouse is better than it has been in the last several years.

R. Lopez as Bulldog

Mazzilli loves the way Rodrigo Lopez works. He is not big like Daniel Cabrera or a gifted young talent like Erik Bedard, but the starter fights through his games, even when his pitches aren't working.

Wednesday night he looked to be in trouble as he got into a first inning jam with runners on first and third, then caught a break when Brian Roberts made a diving stop in short center field to end the inning. After that, Lopez was almost unhittable, allowing only two more hits and one run until he was pulled after the eighth inning.

"He's a tough kid out there," Mazzilli said. "He wanted to go out there in the ninth inning too. He's just a tough kid."

LOPEZ