MINNEAPOLIS—Orioles left-hander Zach Britton came into his first major league start of the season full of confidence, ready to show he could become a stabilizing piece of a starting rotation in disarray.
It was a long-awaited start for both Britton and the Orioles after the 24-year-old spent the season strengthening his left shoulder in Sarasota, Fla., and working on his mechanics in Triple-A Norfolk.
Britton issued a career-high six walks and couldn't get out of the fifth inning, contributing to the Orioles blowing a three-run middle-inning lead to the Twins in front of an announced 32,202.
"My delivery was fine," Britton said. "It was just kind of being tentative at times, not trusting my stuff to go after. When I went after them with my stuff, I got a broken bat, ground-ball double plays. When I went after them, I got the ground balls I wanted to, but I was kind of nibbling and trying to be too fine and I got myself 2-0 and 3-0.
"And then you go to lay one in there or I ended up walking them. It was just, I wasn't able to piece it all together."
The loss was the Orioles' sixth in their past seven games and dropped them into third place for the first time since a three-game stretch in mid-June. It was also the first time the Orioles were fewer than three games over .500 since the 16th game of the season, when they were 9-7 on April 22. During their past 24 games, the Orioles are 7-17 --- or 10 games under .500.
"As a team, we've got to keep doing what we were doing early. We were pitching well, we were getting timely hits and playing good defense, and that was winning us ballgames," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "Right now, we are really not doing that, and if we are doing one of them we are not doing the others. We just need to put it together."
Above all, the Orioles needed innings from Britton, but he lasted just three batters into the fifth, placing an already-overworked Baltimore bullpen into extra service. In the Orioles' five games since the All-Star break, their bullpen had accounted for 26 2/3 innings, or 62 percent of the team's total. In the five games since the break, the bullpen has a 7.15 ERA.
"We've been able to pass the load around, but you don't ever like making some of the moves we've had to make here recently," manager Buck Showalter said the constant roster shuffle caused by refilling the team's overworked bullpen.
Said Ayala: "We don't have anything to lose. We've had a good first half, and I think we've been through better times than right now, but I think the good time is coming."
Britton, who had a 2.14 ERA in his final three outings at Norfolk, struggled with control all night. He left the game in the fifth with the bases loaded after issuing back-to-back walks to Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau, but still led 4-1.
"It was just command," Showalter said of Britton. "You just can't go back out there after getting that lead. You want to be able to do something. One hundred pitches in four innings just doesn't [cut it]. He knows that. He's capable of better."
Britton was forced to watch the Orioles' night unravel from the dugout. Reliever Luis Ayala allowed all three inherited runs to score on Ryan Doumit's two-run single and Brian Dozier's RBI single to tie the game.
On the night, Britton was charged with four earned runs on six hits over four innings with just one strikeout. He threw 100 pitches, just 54 of them strikes.
"I think it was more overthinking it," Britton said. "I knew I was up in the first couple innings. Really not being confident and driving the ball down, so I was tentative with that and not wanting to leave the ball up and that can kind of get into you [mentally] a little bit.
Orioles reliever Pedro Strop allowed back-to-back two-out singles by Ben Revere and Joe Mauer in the seventh inning to give the Twins a 6-4 lead. Those hits came after the Orioles committed their major league-high 79th error of the season. Hardy's throwing error, his fifth of the season, on Denard Span's infield single, put runners at the corners.
With the game tied at 1, the Orioles took a 4-1 lead in the top of the fifth on Adam Jones' 21st homer of the season, a three-run shot off starter Samuel Deduno. Jones' homer was his 13th of the season that either tied the game or gave the Orioles the lead. Both runners on base when Jones homered were there after walks.
But that lead fell apart in the fifth, turning the tone of the game quickly.
Britton said he will put this start in the past quickly, saying he will have a short memory. He said this year is different, that he's more confident in his approach.
The Orioles want him to prove he belongs.
"He's capable of doing this," Showalter said. "It's just like young pitchers with Minnesota. All guys are young pitchers at one time. He's 24, 25. You'd like for him at some point to take that experience. It's one start. He did a lot to get to this point, and I'm proud of him to earn the right. But now he's got to earn the right to stay here."