It’s been another long year for the Orioles, in last place in the five-team American League East, 17 games behind the Rays with a record of 60-65, and on pace for an 11th straight losing season. Brian Roberts thinks it would be grossly unfair to say that these are the same old Orioles though, and the standout second baseman has a rather wide perspective from his years with the organization, having made his major league debut in 2001 after being drafted in the first round in 1999. “Every organization goes through some rough years and we certainly have,” Roberts said. “When you’re going through those rough years, you want to go through them with the idea that there are better times ahead. That hadn’t been the case here until this year. Now, we’re finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. Losing is never fun but it is more acceptable when you’re making progress. Hopefully, in the very near future we’ll be in the pennant race at this time of the year and competing for championships.”

The Orioles are on pace for 78 wins, which would their most since winning 78 in 2004. Although their offense is scoring 5.14 runs a game, their team ranks a more mediocre 13th overall in EqA, and they are giving up 5.11 runs a game, which ranks 27th. They tried to address the lack of pitching depth with two major off-season trades, in which they dealt left-hander Erik Bedard to the Mariners and shortstop Miguel Tejada to the Astros, getting back five players in each transaction.

From the Mariners, the Orioles got left-handed reliever George Sherrill, who emerged as their closer before going on the disabled list Tuesday, along with three pitching prospects: left-hander Tony Butler and right-handers Kam Mickolio and Chris Tillman. The key player to the deal was 23-year-old center fielder Adam Jones, who showed considerable promise before suffering a broken foot. From the Astros came left-hander Troy Patton and right-handers Matt Albers and Dennis Sarfate, along with left fielder Luke Scott and third-base prospect Michael Costanzo.

“What those trades did was bring a lot more depth into the organization,” Roberts said. “We have a lot more options than we used to have and that’s going to pay off in the long run. The thing about this season, though, is it really isn’t about wins and losses. Our goal from the start of the season was to play good baseball and play toward a better future. I believe we’ve done that. We’re definitely not pushovers anymore.”

Bringing respectability to what was once one of baseball’s premier franchises has been Dave Trembley’s mission in his first full season on the job. After being promoted to interim manager from bullpen coach last season when Sam Perlozzo was fired on June 18, Trembley was supposed to be a caretaker while the Orioles searched for a big-name manager. When Joe Girardi, the National League Manager of the Year honors in 2006 with the Marlins, turned the Orioles down, top exec Andy MacPhail gave the job to Trembley for the remainder of the season, and was so impressed that he wound up hiring him on a permanent basis in late August.

Trembley spent 20 years in the minor leagues, managing 2,786 games before joining the Orioles’ coaching staff last year. “Dave is the perfect guy for our team,” Roberts said. “His minor league experience has really helped him take a low-key approach here, where he can really teach and develop young players. He’s a people person, a real good communicator, and we have all worked toward the same goal.”

Trembley, who did graduate work in psychology at Penn State, says the biggest achievement has been changing the culture of the franchise. “There have been so many aspects that we have improved upon-preparation, approach, respect for the game, playing as a team, playing hard for all 27 outs,” Trembley said. “I’m not afraid after managing for 20 years in the minor leagues. I’m going to do it the right way and not give in to that. I don’t think you have to be a hard-line guy to have the players do things your way. You have to establish guidelines and stick with it. Right now, it’s about understanding the big picture. What’s going to come down the road after this are winning teams. We have the unique opportunity to really make history. People are going to look back two, three, four, five, 10 years from now, and say this is when we got it headed toward being a winning organization again.”

The season has reached the point where teams are scoreboard watching, although some are more willing to admit it more than others. The Phillies are certainly checking on the Mets and Marlins to see how their primary National League East rivals are doing, and the Phillies having surrendered the division lead to New York this month has added to the urgency. “At this time of the year, when you let yourself slip behind, it’s harder to gain ground,” Phillies catcher Chris Coste told the Philadelphia Daily News. “So this time of year, yeah, you pay more attention when you are behind.” The Phillies trail the Mets by 1½ games, while the Marlins are four games out. The Phillies have 11 games remaining where they’ll go head-to-head against the Mets and Marlins.

After a three-game game series against the Nationals ends on Thursday, the Phillies will have a stretch where they play teams with winning records in 20 of their next 23 games. “When you look at it, there’s time, but at the same time, you don’t want to get behind,” Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. “At this time of the year, if you get five or six games behind, especially seven, it’s not like you can’t do it, but odds are you’ve got to really play well and the team ahead of you kind of has to fold, kind of has to go through a bad streak. The thing about it right now, a team that can get a winning streak going or can get hot, that’s a team that can put a good push on claiming our division. We’ve got to stay with them.”

The Phillies made up seven games on the Mets in the final 17 days to win the NL East last year, so their current deficit seems far from insurmountable. “You should let it affect you psychologically in a good way, like last year,” Coste said of trailing the Mets again. “Having to watch the Mets last year, we responded and played well. Hopefully at this point, we’ll do the same. We watch what they do. They keep on winning, so we know we have to keep on winning.”

The Yankees‘ hopes of extending their string of consecutive playoff appearances to 14 appear to be getting slimmer by the day. New York is in third place in the AL East, 11 games behind the first-place Rays and just one game ahead of the fourth-place Blue Jays. The Yankees also trail the Red Sox by 6½ games in the wild-card race, and with their upcoming schedule it will be tough for them to make any gains; their 2-1 loss to the Blue Jays on Tuesday night at the Rogers Centre began a string of 16 of 22 games on the road. The Yankees are 28-32 away from home this season. “We knew we were going to go through this because of all the home games we had in July,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “Back on the road, back to work.”

The Yankees face teams with winning records in 27 of their last 37 contests. They have two series each with the Rays, Red Sox, and Blue Jays, and they’ll also go up against the AL’s other two division leaders, the White Sox and Angels. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter sees the strength of the opposition in their schedule in the stretch run as a positive. “The teams we’re trying to catch, we play,” Jeter told the New York Times. “Bottom line is, if we win our games, we’ll be fine.”

The Athletics have begun a murderous stretch that has them playing 23 games in seven cities in 24 days. That stretch started on Monday with the opener of a three-game series with the Twins in Minneapolis. After that, the Athletics play four games against the Mariners in Seattle, three against the Angels in Anaheim, four at home against the Twins, and then three each against the Royals in Kansas City, the Orioles in Baltimore, and the Tigers in Detroit.

“I don’t know if it’s a glitch in the schedule or what, to have to start the season in Japan (with two games against the Red Sox) and then come out and do 23 games in 24 days on the road, honestly, it’s a joke,” Athletics second baseman Mark Ellis told the San Jose Mercury News. The only bright spot for the Athletics is that it won’t affect any post-season hopes; they’re third in the AL West, 19½ games behind the Angels. “If we were in a pennant race right now, this would be a joke,” Ellis said. “Hopefully, they can figure it out and they won’t do it to any other teams after this.”

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Astros still refuse to part with any of their veterans, even though there is interest in right-handed reliever Doug Brocail and catcher Brad Ausmus. … The Dodgers would like to add depth by making a waiver trade for Nationals infielder Ronnie Belliard. … The Braves would like to re-sign center fielder Mark Kotsay as a free agent, though he might have a more reduced role in 2009 as Gregor Blanco figures to get more playing time in the outfield. … The Marlins are likely to trade first baseman Mike Jacobs in the offseason, as he is eligible for salary arbitration.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: While the Yankees continues to have left-hander CC Sabathia atop their free-agent wish list for the offseason, they also plan to pursue right-handers Derek Lowe, Brad Penny, and Ben Sheets, along with outfielder Adam Dunn. … The Blue Jays seem likely to lose right-hander A.J. Burnett, who can opt of his contract at the end of this season and become a free agent, as he continues to increase his value with each passing quality start. … Red Sox right-hander Curt Schilling says he is leaning toward retirement. … Tigers manager Jim Leyland will be back next season, although he has bailed in the past when things got rough with the Pirates, Marlins, and Rockies.

Scouts’ views on various major league players:

  • Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina: “His defense has slipped this year. I can’t put my finger on exactly why, but he’s not quite as mobile behind the plate as before, and his throwing has definitely dropped a notch. He’s too young to be in decline, so maybe it’s just a bad year.”
  • Angels third baseman Chone Figgins: “He’s definitely lost a step this season because of his leg injuries, and that really hurts. His value is in his speed. Once he starts losing his speed, I don’t think you can play him every day anymore.”
  • Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur: “It’s just like this kid has lost it overnight. He looks terrible at the plate. He’s never been a patient hitter, but he swings at everything now. He’s very easy to pitch to.”
  • Mets left-hander Oliver Perez: “If I were the Mets, I would put this guy in the back end of the bullpen right now with all the problems they’re having with their relief pitching. He’s got great stuff, and I think he’d be a great closer because he would really thrive in a situation where he could just let it all hang out for one inning at a time.”
  • Giants left-hander Barry Zito: “He’s finally looking like the Zito from his good days in Oakland. His stuff isn’t as good as it was then, but he’s being a lot more aggressive in attacking the strike zone and challenging hitters. He looks like he’s got some confidence back.”
  • Cubs right fielder Kosuke Fukudome: “Even though he played for a long time in Japan, he’s at the point now where a lot of rookies are in their first seasons. The pitchers have figured out how to attack him. Now, it’s up to him to make the adjustments back. If he does, I’m convinced he’ll be a good player in this league, because he has a lot of talent. If he doesn’t, though, then he’s going to be an awfully high-priced mistake by the Cubs.”