ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In spring training, Orioles manager Buck Showalter preached that the key to his team remaining competitive in the American League East was going to be getting consistent starting pitching.
And while the Orioles rotation isn't full of big names or vaunted resumes, the starters have done exactly what they've needed to do over the past two weeks for the club to stay in the hunt.
In the Orioles' 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen recorded the club's eighth straight quality start. Orioles starters have recorded a quality start in 10 of the last 11 games, but the team has won just five times in that span.
The Orioles offense, held to just one hit in the first five innings Monday, rallied from a three-run deficit to tie the game in the top of the eighth. But left-hander Brian Matusz allowed a two-run, game-winning homer to Tampa Bay's Jerry Sands in the bottom half of the inning in front of an announced 10,576 at Tropicana Field.
“Brian has gotten some big outs for us here,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It didn't happen tonight. Usually you like to have some pitches you'd like to take back, but you can't. But nobody talks about all the good pitches you made to get to that point.”
Matusz, who has stranded 89 percent of inherited runners since moving to the bullpen in 2012, entered the game with one runner on base and two outs after Darren O'Day issued a leadoff walk. Showalter brought in Matusz to face David DeJesus, a left-handed hitter, but Rays manager Joe Maddon countered by pinch-hitting Sands, a right-handed hitter who then hit his first career pinch-hit homer.
Matusz fell behind 2-0 before splitting the plate with a belt-high fastball that Sands sent just inside the left-field foul pole and into the concourse below.
“Anytime you get behind in the count, any professional hitter, it's never a good start,” Matusz said. “To follow it up with a fastball right down the middle, you put yourself in trouble.”
It was the fourth homer Matusz has allowed in 25 1/3 innings this season. He allowed just three homers in 51 innings last season as the club's top left-handed reliever.
“Personal things aside, we lost the ballgame today,” Matusz said. “Didn't make a pitch when we needed it. [Wei-Yin] Chen pitched really well today, good enough to get the win. We just didn't get it done.”
The Orioles (35-34) were 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position Monday, and in the last 11 games, the club is hitting .217 with runners in scoring position (15-for-69).
Orioles pitchers allowed three homers on the night. Chen gave up two of them, but he still held the Rays to three runs and six hits in 6 2/3 innings for his 10th quality start in his last 12 outings. He recorded his third straight quality start and has allowed just five earned runs in 20 innings over that span (2.25 ERA).
“Wei-Yin, he wasn't as efficient with his pitches as you'd like to see, but I think Tampa had something to do with that, too,” Showalter said. “But he got us to the point where we had a chance to win the game. That's usually what you want out of your starting pitching. They got it, too, out of their guy.”
Chen fell behind 3-0 on a two-run homer by Ryan Hanigan that came on a 3-2 curveball with two outs in the fourth inning. Chen allowed a solo homer to Yunel Escobar in the first inning.
Chen has allowed seven homers in his last five starts after yielding only four in his first nine outings of the season.
“I didn't locate my pitches well, and there were more balls that I left up in the zone,” Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. “So that has resulted in some home runs. That's something I need to work on. And hopefully I can improve.”
Tampa Bay right-hander Jake Odorizzi allowed just one hit in his first five innings, and allowed just two runs and three hits in 5 1/3 innings in the game -- both runs coming on Adam Jones' 12th homer of the season.
Jones homered in back-to-back games with a two-run shot deep into the left-field stands in the sixth inning to get the Orioles back in the game. It was the first time this season that Jones has homered in back-to-back games. He did it five times last season.
“He typically doesn't get on top of that ball or swings through it,” Odorizzi said of Jones' homer. “That's kind of been his M.O. He was able to square it up and hit it pretty far. I'm assuming it was pretty far. I didn't turn back to look because I knew it was gone.”
The Orioles tied the game in the eighth inning on Nelson Cruz's high-chopper infield single off left-handed reliever Jake McGee, but they couldn't break through with a big inning, only managing to score the one run.
Displaced Rays reliever Grant Balfour opened the inning by allowing back-to-back singles to Nick Markakis and Manny Machado. Two batters later, McGee was brought in to face the left-handed-hitting Chris Davis, but McGee walked him on five pitches to load the bases.
Cruz then hit a ball that one-hopped high into the air to third baseman Evan Longoria, who didn't have a play at either first or second bases, allowing the tying run to score.
McGee (3-0) struck out J.J. Hardy and pinch-hitter Steve Pearce grounded into a force out at second, but not before he ripped a ball down the left-field line that landed just foul.
“It's such a fine line,” Showalter said. “Stevie's ball barely misses the chalk-line there.”
Down 5-3 in the ninth, pinch-hitter Delmon Young hit a solo homer off Rays right-hander Juan Carlos Oviedo on a 3-2 pitch to cut the lead to one, but Oviedo retired the next two batters to earn the save for Tampa Bay (28-43).
Jones' homer, which came on a 2-1 pitch from Odorizzi, followed Markakis' leadoff double on a ball that hit the top of the left-field wall.
Hanigan's homer was his first in nearly two months. He last hit a home run April 19, when he had two against the New York Yankees' Ivan Nova.
Markakis' two hits gave him sole possession of sixth place on the Orioles' all-time hit list with 1,456, passing Ken Singleton.
O'Day (2-1), who allowed a leadoff walk to Longoria in the eighth, was charged with the loss after Longoria scored on Sands' home run.
twitter.com/EddieInTheYardCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun