Meeting with Rays with be a telltale series for Orioles

The Orioles came into the month of May like lions and went out like lambs. The old adage typically refers to the month of March in Maryland, but I'm trying to make a point here.

Just as the mid-Atlantic springtime weather can be unpredictable, so have the Birds been in the last month. As we head into June and July, we'll find out if the O's struggles are just a rough patch, or the beginning of that downward spiral Orioles fans are so accustomed to.

May began on such a high note. The Orioles were riding a five-game winning streak that included series wins over the Yankees and Red Sox. The pitching was impressive as the Birds' staff held the second-best ERA in baseball. The bullpen was even better. That first week in May, Jim Johnson, Matt Lindstrom and the gang boasted the best ERA of any bullpen in the major leagues.

Not to mention the bats. The O's were leading the majors in home runs, and they were clutch. Night after night, someone came up with a two or three-run bomb to give the O's a chance.

The words "cautious optimism" were thrown around like dollar hot dogs on college night.

Then, this past week happened. Capping off the bipolar month was the three-game sweep at the hands of the Blue Jays on Wednesday.

Here we are - June 1. Nick Markakis joins Brian Roberts, Nolan Reimold, and Matt Lindstrom on the disabled list. The O's are skidding into Tropicana Field on a five-game losing streak. By some random act of God, Buddha, or some sort of cosmic alignment, the Orioles are still in first place. There isn't a man on that roster that doesn't know they're lucky to be there.

Everyone knows the reality. There's only a 2 1/2-game differential between the AL East's first- and last-place teams right now. Any team could be anywhere in the standings at the end of the weekend.

I'm not a fan of hyping up series, but when it comes to perception and momentum, the battle of first-place teams in Tampa this weekend is huge. Not so much for the players. One series loss in June won't put the nail in the coffin for any team. But for everyone else in the baseball world, this series will start to answer questions. Can the Orioles do what postseason-bound teams do? Can they limit the losing streaks, grind through injuries and pull out of funks?

If the Orioles lose this series - or even worse, get swept again - it might signal to an already skittish fan base, that the bottom they hoped wouldn't fall out is starting to crack.

We'd be able to hear the "I knew it wouldn't last" comments all the way from Dundalk to Westminster. Admit it: Some of you already are saying it.
If the Orioles take at least two out of three, they'll continue what is likely to be a season-long campaign of proving they're legit. The comments about how Buck Showalter's group battles through adversity will be all over the message boards.

The task begins Friday night and it is a tall one as David Price takes the mound for the Rays in the opener. The lefty is dealing right now. He's averaged better than seven innings in his last seven starts and has a 2.28 ERA over that span. Also, he's 4-2 with a 2.90 ERA against the O's in his career.

This will be Wei-Yin Chen's first start against the Rays. He is coming off a quality start against the Royals last week in which he received a no-decision.