HOUSTON — Believe it or not, this might not be the best time to play the Houston Astros.
Yes, they still have the worst record in the American League, but bad teams with surging confidence are still dangerous, especially when an opponent leaves a game dangling within reach.
That’s what happened on Thursday night, when the Orioles gave the Astros hope until Houston’s rookie phenom George Springer could give his team the big hit it needed.
After Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez grinded out a quality start, reliever Preston Guilmet allowed a tie-breaking, two-run homer in the seventh inning, sending the Orioles to a 3-1 loss in front of 22,884 at Minute Maid Park.
Springer’s blast was his seventh homer in his last seven games, leading the Astros to their sixth straight win.
“We knew coming in here that they were playing some of their best baseball of the year,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “And a lot of it revolves around how good their starting pitching’s been. Runs were going to be at a premium.”
With the loss, the Orioles (26-26) have now lost three straight and sit at .500 for the first time since April 27 and are still seeking consistency. When the pitching is there, the bats don’t seem to be, and vice versa.
“It’s not always going to click together,” Showalter said. “You’re hoping one part of the game is good enough to offset the others and we have for the most part. I have a lot of confidence that our best baseball is ahead of us. Tonight we just didn’t swing the bats well enough. Ubaldo deserved a better fate.”
Since the teams met at Camden Yards earlier this month, they have been going in opposite directions. The Orioles are 6-11 and the Astros are 11-6.
“I think we’ve seen flashes of how good we can be at times,” said Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who is 0-for-12 with eight strikeouts in three games since returning from the paternity list. “But we got to hit on all cylinders. We’ll right the ship. It’s still reasonably early, guys are still trying to get a feel for it, we got plenty of games ahead of us.”
On Thursday, the Astros (23-32) were hitless in 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position before Springer’s homer.
Perhaps even more frustrating, the Orioles managed just one run off Houston starter Brad Peacock, who entered the game with a 5.20 ERA and was scratched from his last start with right forearm soreness.
Peacock held the Orioles to six hits over six innings, recording eight strikeouts and no walks.
“He was definitely pounding the zone tonight, no question about it,” Davis said. “I thought we had decent at-bats against him. I don't think we swung at a lot of balls out of the strike zone. But at the same time, when a guy’s got four pitches working, you got to be ready for anything. You tip you cap, move on.”
Jimenez entered the night with a strong resume against the Astros — he owned a 4-0 record and 2.32 ERA in eight career starts against Houston — and while the Orioles right-hander appeared unspectacular for most of the night, he turned in one of his grittiest starts of the season.
Jimenez battled with his pitch-count throughout after a 25-pitch second inning, but still managed to grind out six innings and allowed just one run — which scored on a wild pitch — for his fourth quality start in his last six outings.
Jimenez, who left the game after throwing 112 pitches, yielded just three hits and struck out eight but also walked three.
"In a perfect world, you don't want to get so many runners on base like I did because anything can happen,” Jimenez said. “A blooper, a base hit and they're going to score. But it's part of the game. Once they get on base, you have to find a way to get them out."
The Orioles’ only run came in the fourth inning, when designated hitter Nelson Cruz drove in his 49th run of the season with a two-out single off Peacock.
Cruz’s run-scoring hit came after hot-hitting Steve Pearce, who was moved up to the No. 2 spot in the order, led off the inning with a double down the left-field line.
With two games remaining in the month, Cruz’s RBI total is just one shy of Chris Davis’ club record for most at the end of May set last season.
The Astros scored the first run of the game when Jimenez uncorked a wild pitch with the bases loaded in the second inning, allowing Jason Castro to score from third on a close play at the plate.
The play was so close — Jimenez hustled home and made a tag on Castro right when he slid into the plate — that the Orioles challenged the call.
But after a lengthy review of 4 minutes, 25 seconds, the play stood, meaning there wasn’t conclusive evidence to overturn the call.
Jimenez, who rarely gets riled up, pleaded with home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski. Jimenez argued that he tagged Castro on his left foot before he touched home plate, even showing the umpire a cleat mark on his glove.
"I'm pretty sure I had him because his cleat got caught on my glove,” Jimenez said. “He almost made a hole in the glove. That's what I was trying to show the umpire. He never touched home plate. I have the hole mark from his cleat on my glove."
But Jimenez limited the damage from there, stranding seven base runners. The Astros were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position against Jimenez.
Guilmet entered the game having not allowed a hit in six scoreless innings this season before allowing a one-out single to Jose Altuve in the seventh.
Altuve stole second, his second of the night and his AL-leading 19th this season, and Springer lined a 3-2 slider over the out-of-town scoreboard in left field to give Houston the game-winning hit.
“I just left a pitch up in the zone,” Guilmet said. “He’s swinging a hot bat right now for sure. Like I said, I just left a pitch up and he put a good swing on it.”
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