The Orioles received the rarest of baseball gifts Monday night, a rocky and abbreviated start from reigning American League Cy Young Award winner David Price.
They didn’t enjoy it, though, because the Orioles’ offense simply couldn’t take advantage of continual opportunities in a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
You may have read that one before. Recently.
Although the Orioles were third in the majors with a .279 average with runners in scoring position heading into Monday, they’ve struggled lately with leaving runners on base.
In their past six games, before Monday, the Orioles had stranded 44 baserunners. And they left a head-scratching 10 more on against Price in five innings and 15 overall. In four consecutive innings Monday, the Orioles had a runner on third and one out against Price and finished the frame without scoring.
“Any loss is frustrating but hell of a game from both sides,” Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. “They came out and they set us down with men in scoring position. We left  on base, that means we had  opportunities in my eyes. But Price is the pitcher he is because he knows how to get out of jams like that.”
Monday’s loss, though, was particularly deflating because the Orioles (67-57), third place in the AL East, have dropped to 4 1/2 games behind the second-place Rays (71-52) in the AL wild-card race. The Orioles are four games behind the Oakland Athletics (71-53) for the final wild-card spot.
Playing a nearly-four hour game before an announced 25,044 in what’s about as critical as a mid-August series gets, the Orioles simply couldn’t cash in when they needed it the most.
“It’s half full, half empty. I understand there’s two parts to that equation,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “You get them out there, and you’ve got to get them in. That would fall under blankety-blank obvious if I said something to one of the players. They get it.”
Price permitted just two runs despite allowing a season-high-tying 10 hits and walking more than one batter in a game for the first time since May 4. And it certainly didn’t help that the Orioles’ de facto ace, Chris Tillman, allowed four runs, and two homers, in six innings.
Price (7-5) has never lost in eight starts at Camden Yards. And that streak remains intact despite lasting just five innings – by far his shortest stint since straining his left triceps May 15.
He was in trouble throughout Monday, failing to record a clean inning. The Orioles scored once in the second on a double by Danny Valencia, who was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk earlier in the afternoon. He entered the night 7-for-10 against Price, and continued to pile on with two hits and a walk against Tampa’s ace and also added another single against reliever Joel Peralta in the seventh.
The Orioles scored their second run in the third on a RBI double by Matt Wieters that landed just below the top of the wall next to the 410-foot sign in deepest center. Two more inches and it would have been a three-run homer. Instead, it scored just one and Wieters and Jones were stuck at second and third respectively when Price struck out J.J. Hardy and got Nick Markakis to pop out to the catcher.
It was that kind of night for the offense.
They were 2-for-11 (.182) with runners in scoring position against Price, who had allowed hitters to bat .305 in those situations this season. And the Orioles were 2-for-14 overall (.143 average) with runners in scoring position.
“We want to get every one of them in, our guys do. But it’s hard to do,” Showalter said. “There’s good pitchers out there, just dialing up something against Price. And sometimes you dial it up and it’s hit right at somebody. Stevie [Pearce] hit a bullet right at the shortstop and hit a bullet right at the left fielder. Those things will turn if you keep grinding and it will bounce our way.”
Still, the Orioles climbed with one run in the seventh when Wieters went deep against Peralta for his 18th homer of the year and second of the homestand.
It was the night’s third home run, with the first two coming against Tillman, who was denied his 15th win of the season for the third straight outing.
Tillman (14-4) allowed single runs in the first two innings – a solo homer by Evan Longoria, his 25th of the season, in the first and a RBI single by Kelly Johnson in the second.
Longoria and Johnson have been habitually unkind toward Tillman and the Orioles. Longoria entered the night 9-for 21 with three homers versus Tillman before he deposited a 91-mph fastball over the right-center wall.
Johnson was a more humane 3-for-8 versus Tillman before Monday, but his single gave him 23 RBIs (in 37 games) against the Orioles – his most versus any AL team.
Tillman was uncharacteristically inefficient, throwing 51 pitches in his first two innings before needing just 11 pitches to get through a perfect third.
But in the fourth, after the Orioles tied the score at 2-2, Tillman handed back the lead. Matt Joyce hit a fastball onto the flag court for a two-run shot, his 16th homer of the season. It was just the third time in his last 14 starts that Tillman had allowed more than one homer.
“It was OK. They got to me early,” Tillman said. “They saw a lot of pitches early on. I think I struggled with my offspeed stuff early. Was able to find it later, but they jumped on the board early and they kind of never looked back.”
The Rays threatened to break things open in the eighth, loading the bases with no outs against reliever Francisco Rodriguez. But first baseman Chris Davis saved the inning by snagging a sharp liner and throwing to second for a double play. Lefty Brian Matusz then came in and got Jason Bourgeois to ground out.
The Orioles continued to make it interesting, putting a runner on second with one out in the eighth before failing to score. Hardy led off the ninth with the club’s 15th hit, but pinch-runner Alexi Casilla was thrown out trying to steal.
Rays closer Fernando Rodney walked Markakis with one out, but Rodney struck out Valencia and got Nate McLouth to ground out to pick up his 28th save of the season.
The Orioles have now dropped eight of 13 to the Rays this year, including seven of their last 10 matchups since winning two of three in Tampa to open the season.
And this one seemingly was always in their grasp, but they just couldn’t produce the key hit.
“We’ve put ourselves in good opportunities. I know you want to look at it in a negative way, but I always look at in the positive,” Jones said. “We had men on base and we created the opportunity. We were just unable to get that big hit. But we were able to create the opportunity. Just imagine if we he had none and left nobody on base. Then we’d really be getting cussed out.”