- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2001

BALTIMORE Based on preseason projections, the 2001 Baltimore Orioles, for the most part, have been true to form. They've beaten the teams they are supposed to (the Devil Rays), lost to the teams they are supposed to (the Yankees) and approach the quarter mark of the season six games under .500 with a 16-22 record.
It's certainly nothing to write home about, though there have been signs of progress. Baltimore's once-anemic offense is beginning to liven up. Starting pitchers Sidney Ponson and Jose Mercedes were effective in their most-recent outings after they opened the year a combined 0-9.
That kind of slow progression isn't going to lead to any real results this season, but manager Mike Hargrove knew since the first day of spring training that it likely would take several years before the ultimate goal a contending franchise is reached.
"The Yankees didn't get good overnight, and the Orioles aren't going to get good overnight. It's a gradual process," said Hargrove, whose team opens the longest homestand of the season, 12 games, tonight against the Detroit Tigers at Camden Yards. "If it has any chance to take root and to last awhile, it's not going to be an overnight process."
Which may explain the past week and a half, during which time Baltimore lost six straight games to New York before finally breaking through with a dramatic 10-5, 11-inning victory Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.
Their 1-6 mark against New York isn't much to gloat about, but the Orioles took some solace in the fact that five of the six losses throw out Friday night's 14-5 shellacking were decided by one or two key plays.
"We've given the Yankees all that they want, for five of six games," Hargrove said on Saturday. "We made them work to win the games they've won, except for [Friday] night. I don't get goose bumps thinking about it, but if you're looking for a silver lining, that's it."
Silver linings aside, the Orioles' woes this season can be directly attributed to their lack of success against quality opposition. Entering tonight's game, Baltimore is 6-16 against the Yankees, Indians, Red Sox and Twins, teams that all are at last six games over .500.
On the flip side, the Orioles have gone 10-6 against Tampa Bay and Detroit, teams they expect to be better than. Thus, the next two weeks (when they host the Tigers, Twins, Angels and Rangers) represent a golden opportunity for the Orioles to separate themselves from some of the American League's lesser competition.
"You want to be competitive, and you want to win," infielder Jeff Conine said. "Everyone was asking me in Baltimore if we were happy being competitive with [the Yankees]. No, we still lost. You want to be competitive, yes, but you also want to win."
Baltimore will put itself in position to win more consistently if its recent offensive surge continues. The Orioles have a .294 batting average in their last five games (two against the Devil Rays, three against the Yankees), and averaged more than seven runs each day.
The Orioles still rank last in baseball with 26 home runs, but they did send three balls out of the park on Sunday. Conine slugged his fourth of the season and outfielder Chris Richard connected for his team-leading fifth home run.
"The last five or six days we've swung the bats a lot better," Hargrove said. "Hopefully it's contagious."
Sunday's explosion probably was more a mirage than a sign of things to come, but Baltimore is well aware of its general lack of offensive pop and understands it must take a different route in order to win games.
"We're a team that can't outslug you," catcher Brook Fordyce said. "So we can't afford to make mistakes or to give guys extra at-bats."

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