They each have a moment, one particular blip in a long season -- a singular heartbeat in a series of many -- when they believe their team with lowly expectations burst forward and pronounced itself ready for a pennant run that would excite a city and fan base that had seen so many seasons end in misery.
For Baltimore Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli it was a comeback win on a bright Wednesday afternoon against the reigning Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana of the Minnesota Twins. The previous evening, Mazzilli had lost his starting center fielder Luis Matos to a fractured finger and Mazzilli sensed his surprising team had lost some momentum. The Orioles trailed early in that game on May 11 but fought back to win, 7-4. He called it the biggest win of the year at the time and hasn't changed his opinion since.
Closer B.J. Ryan disagrees. He points to a Saturday evening, April 16, against the New York Yankees when Baltimore's newly discovered slugger -- mighty mite Brian Roberts -- hit a three-run home run against reliever Tom Gordon in the seventh inning to erase a two-run deficit. Less than an inning later, with the game in jeopardy, Ryan was brought in with the bases loaded in the eighth to face lefty Hideki Matsui. The closer struck out Matsui, sending the capacity crowd at Oriole Park at Camden Yards into a frenzy.
"I thought that was the best baseball I've seen played here in awhile," Ryan said of that 7-6 win. "It was just fun to watch and fun to be a part of."
Now everyone must agree these Orioles are contenders, only two games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. For the first time since 1997, the Orioles, and their fans, will anticipate the second half of the season.
"I looked at the stats the other day and I think we were 17 games out or something like that last year," outfielder Jay Gibbons said. "Going into the break 17 games out, there's not a whole lot of optimism for the second half. Being two games and being right in the thick of things and having a good club that's not even healthy right now, that is something to look forward to."
"It's a whole different feeling for us," Ryan said. "We go into the break two back when we haven't played well for almost 15 or 16 days, so that shows you the character that's in this clubhouse."
The Orioles have played short-handed at different times. Matos was lost for almost six weeks because of the finger injury. Catcher Javy Lopez has missed a month and a half and won't likely return until late July at the earliest. Erik Bedard will likely rejoin the team on July 18 after missing almost two months with a sprained knee. Roberts was lost for six games because of a shoulder injury. Melvin Mora missed 10 games with a strained hamstring; the team went 2-8 without him.
Sammy Sosa, hitting just .225 with nine home runs, has also yet to become a presence. At some point, Baltimore expects him to produce.
"I think everyone feels good about [the first half]," Rafael Palmeiro said, "and I know that at one point we were 14 games above .500 and in first place. I think being two games out at this point with the injuries that we've had, I think we'll take it."
Baltimore's ability to stay in contention may be determined by how healthy the team can stay in the second half and whether its pitching staff, inconsistent at times, can improve.
"The Orioles are a very good team and always give us trouble," Boston Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon said. "The big question is if the pitching is going to hold up."
Baltimore's starting staff ranks 22nd in the majors in earned run average. The Orioles continue to search the trade market for a viable alternative, though at this point aren't willing to part with Daniel Cabrera in order to acquire a top-of-the rotation starter. Names such as San Francisco's Jason Schmidt and the Florida Marlins' A.J. Burnett have surfaced, but nothing is imminent. Perhaps Baltimore's reluctance to trade Cabrera, who has allowed just four runs in the past 18 2/3 innings (1.93 ERA), is understandable. Cabrera, 24, will start the team's first game after the break.
"I don't think we want to sell the future for something that can't be long term," Mazzilli said.
The next two weeks will determine if Baltimore is truly in a position to make a move and whether the type of players the Orioles need become available. Baltimore is seeking a first baseman who can give some rest to Palmeiro -- who has played in all but one game this year -- and a defensive center fielder. The New York Mets may be willing to part with center fielder Mike Cameron if they soon fall out of the race in the National League East.
Regardless of whether they make a major move, the Orioles think they've sent a strong message to AL East foes. "They know that we're not going to go away if we're healthy," Gibbons said. "We'll have some fun in the second half I think."