- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 5, 2002

BALTIMORE They were playing without their regular No.3 hitter for the fifth time in eight games. The players batting second, third and fourth were a combined 1-for-14 at the plate. Their reigning team MVP reached base once.
Obstacles like those would have spelled doom for the Baltimore Orioles of 2001, a team that needed nearly everything to go right in order to win ballgames.
For the 2002 version of the Orioles those obstacles spell victory, and not your run-of-the-mill squeaker of a win, but ones like yesterday's 10-0 shellacking of the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards that catapulted Baltimore to the coveted .500-mark.
"I think it's what we expected coming out of spring training," first baseman Jeff Conine said. "I don't think anyone who puts on the uniform in here is surprised by it."
Perhaps not, but there is some surprise to the manner in which the Orioles have fought back from a 4-11 start to win 11 of their last 15. Namely, they're doing it in spite of the various hurdles that pop up over the course of a baseball season.
Getting no production from the 2 to 4 spots in your lineup? Watch as your 5 to 9 hitters combine for eight hits, reach base 15 times, score eight runs and drive in seven.
"We're pretty solid all the way down, from the top third to the middle third to the bottom third. If one of those sections gets hot one night, they can carry the team," said Conine, last year's MVP who carried the entire lineup on his shoulders but saw his team win yesterday despite a 1-for-5 afternoon.
Dealing with injuries to your starting designated hitter and catcher? Watch as your replacement DH (Marty Cordova) clubs a three-run homer and raises his batting average to .360, while your struggling backup catcher (Brook Fordyce) triples his season hit total from one to three.
Worrying about the status of your new-look starting rotation, which has added two members in the last two weeks? Watch as rookie right-hander Rodrigo Lopez tosses seven shutout innings and improves his record to 4-0 with a sparkling 1.91 ERA.
"We had it in the back of our minds that he could [be a successful starter] if we wanted to make that move," manager Mike Hargrove said of Lopez, who didn't even finish in the top three in April's AL Rookie of the Month voting. "But to say you could envision him being 4-0 and a regular in our rotation, no, I don't think anybody in their right mind could have said that."
Put it all together and you've got the most surprising team in the American League, one that captivated yesterday's crowd of 42,131 by reaching the .500 mark for the first time since it was 1-1 on April 3. And considering their 6-0 record against Kansas City this season (by a combined score of 52-15), there's good reason to believe the Orioles can get over the .500 hump in today's series finale.
"It's nothing against [the Royals]," said left fielder Melvin Mora, who hit a three-run homer yesterday, his fourth of the season. "We're just playing good right now. It doesn't matter who comes to town."
Those with good memories will recall that the Orioles went through a similar winning streak a year ago, winning eight of 10 in mid-May to improve to 24-24. That team promptly went in the tank, lost several key players to injury and wound up losing 98 games.
This year's team doesn't see such a collapse coming, and it can point directly to its balanced offensive attack for evidence of continued good things. Where the 2001 Orioles relied heavily on production from Conine, David Segui and Chris Richard, the 2002 Orioles know they've got the offensive depth to put up 10 runs on any given day, even when Segui (sore left hand) and Richard (out until July after undergoing left shoulder surgery) are hurt and Conine (.260 average, two homers) isn't hitting.
"Everybody is hitting the ball in the right situations, and we're scoring a lot of runs," said third baseman Tony Batista, who launched his team-leading ninth homer in the second inning and reached base safely all five times he came to the plate. "I think that's the key right now, why we've been winning a lot of games."
And when all else fails, the Orioles can rely on the outstanding pitching they've been getting from young hurlers like Jorge Julio (1.23 ERA, five saves), Rick Bauer (1.38 ERA in nine relief appearances) and Lopez, yesterday's starter who extended his fabulous first month into May by scattering five hits and one walk over seven innings.
"Everything is going well for me, and that's kind of surprising," Lopez said. "I didn't imagine I'd have this record three months ago. Every day here and every time I'm on the mound, I'm just trying to enjoy it."


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