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ON BASEBALL

Team hoping it can ruffle Oriole feathers

NEW YORK -- With the Yankees out of the way until July, the Red Sox return home for some games that really matter.

No one ever has secured a playoff spot by Memorial Day, but the Baltimore Orioles arrive here in first place in the American League East, leading the Sox by three games. The last time the Orioles went this deep into a season ahead of the pack was in 1997, when they went wire to wire to win the East, before falling to Cleveland in the playoffs.

''They're playing great," Sox manager Terry Francona said. ''We haven't seen them for a while. Their record is what it is. Hopefully we can knock them back a couple of pegs. They've got some injuries, too, so hopefully we can knock them back."

Will it last? The skeptics will point to this past weekend, when the Orioles were swept at home by the Detroit Tigers, as the beginning of the end. The Orioles were the last team in the majors to lose three straight games this season, but after placing three players on the disabled list in a four-day span last week, the Orioles will be facing the Sox without their best starting pitcher (Erik Bedard, sprained left knee ligament), their catcher (Javy Lopez, fractured hand), center fielder (Luis Matos, fractured finger) and left fielder (Larry Bigbie, strained left hamstring).

Among their replacements was a Single A callup, Jeff Fiorentino, who was immediately dubbed Screech because of his resemblance to the character in the TV show, ''Saved by the Bell;" a Double A callup, Napoleon Calzado, who arrived with no bats and had to borrow some lumber from Sammy Sosa; and a 20-year-old pitcher, Hayden Penn, who is the team's best pitching prospect but was still in Double A before making his major league debut Saturday.

''But barring the injuries," said one AL scout who has watched the Orioles closely, ''they were in it for the long haul, and because of their pitching, not because of their offense. Their pitching has been very credible, which is why losing Bedard might be their biggest loss of them all.

''You knew every fifth day what you were going to get from Bedard. You don't know what you're going to get every fifth day from [Daniel] Cabrera, [Sidney] Ponson, or [Bruce] Chen. You need pitching to stay in the hunt? Will the White Sox [another fast starter] stay in the hunt? Yes, they will, because they've got the pitching. Will the Orioles? If they get Bedard back, yeah, because their bullpen is credible, too. But if he misses two or three starts, you'll have to wait and see what the Orioles will do to compensate."

Bedard, 26, is the Canadian-born lefthander out of Norwalk (Conn.) Community College who had elbow ligament surgery in 2002 and this season supplanted Ponson as the ace of the staff, going 5-1 with a 2.08 ERA in nine starts. A surprise? He shouldn't have been, according to the scout. ''Last year in spring training he was far and away their best young guy," the scout said. ''I think in-house they finally figured out how good he was."

But Bedard last week was diagnosed with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. What is potentially ominous for the Orioles is that Bedard said the knee had been bothering him for at least three weeks, which may mean the problem is more serious than anyone knows.

The other young pitcher who has created a lot of buzz this spring is Cabrera, the 6-foot-7-inch righthander from the Dominican Republic who has been clocked on radar guns as touching 100 miles an hour with his fastball. ''That's legit," the scout said. ''If he throws 100 pitches, maybe only three fastballs will be under 95. But in the big leagues, if you see 98 but without command in three at-bats, eventually you're going to hit it."

Cabrera, who just turned 24 over the weekend, is scheduled to face the Sox tomorrow night. He made two starts against the Sox in a little over a week at the end of last season, one in Baltimore, and was lit up for 11 runs on 12 hits and 6 walks in just six innings.

''But he has a good breaking ball, even if he doesn't yet command it, and his fastball has life and stays strong for 100 pitches," the scout said. ''[Bartolo] Colon is a much better pitcher now than he was five years ago, and he might throw only 10 pitches above 96. But he's added a cutter, can turn over his fastball, and mixes in a changeup to both lefties and righties."

The Orioles have a formidable bullpen, anchored by lefthander B.J. Ryan, whose success (14 saves in 15 chances) should surprise no one, the scout said. ''He's no more impressive than he was three years ago. He's taken one important step. A lot of times when guys improve their command, their deception goes away. But that hasn't happened in his case. In the last two years, he's a guy who reminds you of Mariano Rivera, that's how bad some of the swings you see guys take at his pitches."

The offense, with all pieces intact, has been as formidable as Boston's, leading the AL in batting average at the start of play yesterday (they had a season-high 20 hits against the Sox in the Keith Foulke debacle April 26), and fourth in runs scored. Anyone who thought Brian Roberts would go away after his hot start was mistaken; the Orioles leadoff man brings a season-long 18-game hitting streak to Fenway Park, and a major league-leading .374 batting average to go along with 11 home runs, more than double the career-best five he hit two seasons ago.

''Sure, the power is a big surprise," the scout said, ''but not his ability to get on base, and his ability to make things happen. Again, they'd been talking about [Jerry] Hairston [traded in the Sammy Sosa deal] playing second base for the last three years. In that lineup, he gets a lot of fastballs to hit, the [strike] zone is small, he's stronger, and he's more confident.

''And the middle of that lineup, with [Melvin] Mora and [Miguel] Tejada, that's the most formidable right-right combination of anybody in our league. Sammy Sosa? He's still a presence, but he has just four home runs, and all of them solo shots. To beat this team, you have to keep Mora and Tejada from dominating."

Maybe the impact of the injuries won't show up this week, though Sosa is still finding his way after missing nearly a month with a staph infection in his foot. But Lopez may not be back until the beginning of August, Matos is expected to miss another couple of weeks, and Bigbie had already missed five games before he re-aggravated his hamstring Friday.

That's a lot to overcome.

The Orioles are 13-5 on the road, the best record in the majors, and have averaged 7.2 runs a game on the road. But this is the start of a 13-game trip, beginning with four in the Fens. Screech and Napoleon are advised to fasten their seatbelts.

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