Never in a million years would I have thought back in March, that a third of the way through this season the Baltimore Orioles, last-place finishers in the American League East last year, would have a better offense than the Philadelphia Phillies, winners of the National League East.

Never.

And neither would you.

I mean, hey, the Orioles have had a losing record for something like 300 years in a row, and the Phils had the best record in the Major Leagues last year with 102 wins.

Surely that would suggest to a reasonable person -- even a rabid baseball fan -- that the Phils have superior offensive and pitching weapons, while the Orioles are hanging on for dear life in all departments.

While you almost never hear about this statistic -- I happen to think it's interesting -- last season the Phils had the second-best run differential (+184) in the Major Leagues (the Yankees were tops with +210) between runs scored and runs given up.

The Orioles, if you are curious, had a differential last season of --152. That means they gave up way more runs than they scored.

So clearly, the Phils had the dominant offense. Right?

Wrong.

Not last year, and certainly not this year.

If you were to check, the Phillies and the Orioles were ranked 14th and 15th offensively last season. But they easily could have been flip-flopped. The O's scored five fewer runs than the Phils, but the Orioles led the Phils in hits, doubles, home runs and total bases.

This year, so far, the Orioles are ranked 10th in the Major Leagues in offense. The Phils are sitting at 15th. The O's have scored more runs, hit more home runs and have more total bases, while the Phils have a few more hits and more doubles. They are identical in runs batted in.

So what's that tell us? Clearly, offense isn't everything.

It just points out, as though any of us ever had any doubts about it, the importance of pitching in the big leagues.

But if that's true, how does one explain the Phils sitting in last place in its division and the O's tied for first in theirs, even though the Phils have the fourth-best defense (27 errors) in the Major Leagues and the Orioles (52 errors) the worst?

As of this minute, the best pitching staff in the bigs -- on paper that would be Philadelphia -- is ranked 12th in earned run average at 3.79.

The Orioles, which easily would have been accused in March of having one of the two or three worst pitching staffs in all of baseball, is ranked ninth in the Major Leagues with an ERA of 3.73. That's ninth out of 30 teams.

Guess who's first? The Washington Nationals, which at 2.99 is the only team in the big leagues with an earned-run average under 3.00. For the record, the Nats pitchers also have given up the fewest earned runs (160), and have the lowest batting average against its pitching (.223).

I know. Where did that come from? Right?

That's what makes baseball the great game it is. You can't assume anything. One plus one does not always add up to two.

Just about the time you think you have it figured out, the Orioles live in first place and the Phils are bringing up the rear.

It might not end up that way at the end of the season, but for now the O's are a better team -- offensively and pitching, at least -- than the Phils.

If you're an Orioles fan it's a nice thing to hear.

But if the Phils are your team? Painful. Very painful.

Sports columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Thurs days. E-mail: lhick s@yorkdispatch.com.