Some teams know they are pennant contenders before the season begins. You have to beat the idea out of their heads. Other clubs learn that they have a title shot as their season evolves. Performance and confidence, fragile at first, feed on each other. Somewhere along the way, the team that knows it's good and the club that is merely learning to believe in itself must meet.
For the last four days, the world champion Red Sox and the partially resurrected Orioles have tested each other. Boston has big worries these days. Can Curt Schilling, when he returns from the disabled list as early as this week, shore up the Boston bullpen for six weeks until closer Keith Foulke recovers from knee surgery? Schilling relieving Foulke, isn't that backward?
However, for the Orioles these critical days may have seen a whole season sway in the balance. The Red Sox not only arrived with a four-game lead over the Orioles in the American League East, but Baltimore was in danger of being swamped in the wild-card chase by several teams, including the Yankees, Twins and Indians.
"We were reeling, somewhat," said outfielder Jay Gibbons, perhaps adding the last word simply to keep face. "It would have been devastating to get swept, especially with New York coming on."
Now, though the Yankees are only a half-game off their bumper, such dismal thoughts have been banished. Thanks to homers by Rafael Palmeiro and Gibbons, and eight strong innings by starter Rodrigo Lopez, Baltimore won, 4-1, to take three of four games and cut Boston's division lead to two games. Considering the way most teams tend to run either cold or hot (but seldom tepid) the Orioles may be warming up quickly once again.
"We're back in it," said Gibbons.
"We've been beat up, but we've kept our head above water," said B.J. Surhoff. "We went 2-9 [in three road series before Boston came to Camden Yards] and the Red Sox picked up I don't know how many games on us. So, this series was huge."
As long as two weeks ago Orioles veterans such as Surhoff and Palmeiro looked at their tough schedule plus the Orioles' long injury list and knew what the team was facing: homely damage control until injured ace Erik Bedard and catcher Javy Lopez could return after the all-star break. Both reminded teammates that simply avoiding disaster might be a victory of a sort. Sometimes, you build a lead so that you can afford to lose it -- but not too fast.
"To be two games behind after everything we went through, we'll take it," said Palmeiro.
The low point for the Orioles, and Manager Lee Mazzilli as well, came last Tuesday at Yankee Stadium when Rodrigo Lopez, working on just three days' rest, was left on the mound too long to absorb a humiliating 10-run pounding. As he left to Bronx catcalls, Lopez and his team looked almost whipped. But not quite. Sometimes circumstance lends a hand. Every pitcher fears the Red Sox lineup. Except Lopez. Once again, for his 10th win over Boston since 2002, Lopez allowed only three hits.
"You can't be sorry for yourself," Lopez said. How on earth do you avoid it? "Just experience," he said. "It's about maturity."
The Orioles will need all they can muster, especially with the rotation still dragging along Sidney Ponson (5.93 ERA). However, the schedule may smile. The Orioles don't meet the Red Sox or Yankees again until Sept. 2. As long as the Orioles play well, that's a bonus. If they don't, it means they have no head-to-head opportunities to make up lost ground in a hurry.
Nonetheless, these four Red Sox games have restored much of the Orioles' recently tattered confidence, especially since the hero of the past two days -- Palmeiro -- has been such a calming force all season. After his eighth RBI in two days and his flag-porch home run for the 2,998th hit of his career on Sunday, Palmeiro was asked whether he would trade his 3,000th hit, when it comes, for a World Series ring.
"I don't have either of them," he said. "Maybe I'll have both after this year."
That's certainly optimistic. But in this area, in this summer, such thoughts seem to blossom. Long after this Orioles victory a different game continued on the field at Oriole Park. As two high school all-star games played, the scoreboard in right field, over which Palmeiro's home run had flown, continued to blink as new scores arrived from all around the major leagues.
As the shadows lengthened, almost every score had some pertinence for the postseason chances of either the Orioles or the Washington Nationals, who lead the National League East by 21/2 games and have a seven-game edge over Florida, which is currently second in the wild-card race. The Yankees, Twins and Rangers won, but the Indians lost. The Braves and Marlins lost, but the Cubs won. The permutations seemed endless, but the conclusion was clear.
As the all-star break arrives, the center of baseball gravity has swung toward Baltimore and Washington. Not one city or the other, but both of them. On Sunday, the Orioles, a team that claimed it might be irreparably injured at the gate by the arrival of the Nats, drew the largest crowd in the history of Camden Yards (49,828) as well as the largest four-game series ever in this park (195,722).
Those big crowds pulled the two franchises so close in attendance -- the Nats average 33,328 to the Orioles' 33,198 -- that the remarkable feature was not their similarity but the raw total of both cities combined: 66,526 fans. The Orioles are now 3,000 a game above their '03 pace and only 1,000 a game below '04. In fact, we've reached the point where the only two cities in all of baseball that draw more fans than the combination of Baltimore and Washington are Los Angeles and New York.
When baseball's owners and executives meet in Detroit to chat about their sport, one question that's perplexed the sport for decades seems to have been answered in barely half a season. The Washington-Baltimore debate was always framed wrong. Long ago, the sport should've sought to include both towns, not select one over the other.
Washington and Baltimore are drawing more fans than both teams in Chicago (65,155) or in the San Francisco Bay Area (63,399). Other regions have not kept up either. Baseball has two teams each in Texas (65,701), Missouri (60,990), Pennsylvania (56,775), Ohio (47,102) and pathetic Florida (35,645). By season's end, the Nats or Orioles, or both, may draw more fans than the Marlins and Devil Rays put together.
If the Orioles and Nationals play roughly as well after the break, the crowds at Camden Yards and RFK may grow even more as the team's postseason chances -- seen as remote and nonexistent, respectively, before the season -- become more tangible.
Can such a thing come to be? As the Oriole Park scoreboard flashed its scores into the evening, the numbers glittered and blinked as the sun began to set. Or, perhaps, they winked.