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IN AL EAST, MORE THAN TWO WILL TANGO

Go ahead, slap me. Restore me to my senses. It's been one week, for God's sake. The baseball season is an eternity, an enervating six-month grind. Time and the law of averages unmask all pretenders in the end. Only a fool draws conclusions two weeks into April.

But I'm starting to wonder about that Yankees-Red Sox playoff series. This isn't one of my periodic anti-Yankee rants. It'll be wonderful if this season ends in another epic ALCS between the Yanks and Bosox. It's the best rivalry in sports. It's good for baseball, good for the soul.

We shouldn't be so quick to write off the rest of the division, that's all. Remember the other teams in the AL East? Check the name tags: Baltimore, Toronto, Tampa Bay. Younger fans might not recall, but there was a time -- long before "American Idol" -- when the AL East was not a two-team affair.

In 1997, the Orioles actually won the division. Since then, the Yanks and Red Sox have finished 1-2 seven straight times. Six years running (1998 to 2003), the AL East finished in identical order: New York, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay.

Something tells me it's going to be different this year. The Yanks and Red Sox have a certain fragile quality about them. And the rest of the AL East is catching up. Maybe not enough to stave off another Boston-New York exacta, but enough to make the late summer more interesting.

The Orioles haven't finished at .500 since winning the AL East in '97. This could be their year to break through. The offense is frightening. Miguel Tejada, Melvin Mora and Javy Lopez are among the top producers at their positions. Second baseman Brian Roberts is playing like a modern-day Joe Morgan. If Sammy Sosa can approach his past form, look out.

But it's mainly about pitching, and the O's staff is a lot better than people realize. Last June, when Ray Miller came out of a four-year retirement to be the pitching coach, the O's were last in the AL with a 5.34 ERA. From that point on, their ERA was 4.24, second-best in the league.

An emerging ace can change the whole complexion of a team. Baltimore has a budding No. 1 in Rodrigo Lopez, who dominated in the spring and won his first two regular-season starts. Sunday in Yankee Stadium, he pitched eight stellar innings in a 7-2 win over New York.

It was a significant win for the O's, who lost their first seven games against the Yanks last year by a combined 70-35. Taking two out of three was a big step for a team that seemed to have a mental block against the Yanks. The O's can make a further statement this weekend when they host the Yanks in Camden Yards.

The O's have a future star in lefty closer B.J. Ryan. If a couple of the O's young starters (Erik Bedard, Daniel Cabrera, Bruce Chen) can emerge, and if Sidney Ponson keeps his off-field antics to a minimum, they could make a run.

The Blue Jays, who surged to the AL East lead in the opening week, are better, too. Roy Halladay is a legitimate ace. Ted Lilly has the tools to be a solid No. 2. Toronto has a promising rookie starter in Gustavo Chacin and a deep bullpen.

The Jays haven't finished higher than third since winning the World Series in 1993. They are not likely to stay atop the division, but they're better than the 67-94 record of '04. Early on, they've been doing the little things that win games. Their middle relief has been solid.

Even Tampa Bay should be better this year, too. The Devil Rays had a winning record at home last year. They have some emerging offensive stars in Aubrey Huff and Carl Crawford, and a future staff ace in 21-year-old lefty Scott Kazmir.

So it might not be another Yanks-Red Sox runaway. Before those two can meet in another October classic, they might have to survive a hot September. One of the AL leasts will spoil the party one of these years, maybe sooner than you think.
e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com