MINNEAPOLIS -- Orioles manager Buck Showalter is always looking ahead.
And following his team's lethargic 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Sunday afternoon at Target Field, Showalter’s major concern wasn’t his sputtering offense but instead an all-too-familiar short outing by a starting pitcher that made for another long afternoon for his bullpen.
“I’m trying to save the bullets,” Showalter said. “Fortunately we have a day off, but we’re going to go through a period here after the off day where those type of things are going to catch up with you. You just can’t have it. Every team in baseball is like that.”
The Orioles (15-14) left Minnesota disappointed after losing two of three games to the Twins (14-15). They scored just six runs in the entire series, and four of those were provided by a pair of mammoth two-run home runs by left fielder Nelson Cruz.
Otherwise, an offense void of first baseman Chris Davis provided very little charge against some pedestrian Twins pitchers. In between those two homers by Cruz, the Orioles scored one run in a span of 17 innings.
Pitching on six days of rest after the Orioles had back-to-back rainouts last week, right-hander Miguel Gonzalez (1-3) was ineffective, lasting just 4 2/3 innings and allowing three runs and six hits.
Over the past five games, an Orioles starting pitcher has gone more than 5 1/3 innings just once — Ubaldo Jimenez’s 7 1/3 shutout innings in the club's 3-0 win in Minnesota on Friday.
“It can go both ways,” Orioles right fielder Nick Markakis said. “When we are hitting the ball and scoring runs and not pitching well, it looks bad. And when we are not scoring runs, it looks bad. That’s part of being a team and getting on the same page and doing things the right way.
“Teams are going to go through their struggles. Everybody is going to do it. I wouldn't say we are struggling right now. We just didn't have a series like we wanted to. And we just got to put it past us.”
Showalter was forced to use five different relievers Sunday, a troublingly common theme so far this season. The Orioles have a day off Monday before opening a three-game series at Tropicana Field against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday. Starting with that series, the Orioles play 13 straight days and 26 games in their next 27 days.
“It’s been a challenge for us because I’ve been trying to protect our bullpen pieces, but we continue to get some short starts,” Showalter said. “It’s tough. …What it causes is guys who are usually pitching when you’re ahead are pitching when you’re behind. You know me. I’m not going to physically put our bullpen in harm’s way.”
An Orioles offense that entered Sunday averaging 5.6 runs per game on the road, second-most in the American League, didn’t do much to help its cause in the series finale.
The club’s only offense Sunday came from Cruz, who blasted a 1-0 pitch into the third deck in left field — the second ball he has sent there this series — off Minnesota starter Phil Hughes in the sixth inning. It was Cruz's team-leading ninth home run of the season.
Hughes, who had faced the Orioles regularly with the New York Yankees before signing with Minnesota in the offseason, had a 5.22 career ERA against the Orioles in 20 appearances before Sunday.
But Sunday, Hughes (3-1) held the Orioles to two runs and six hits over 6 1/3 innings.
Gonzalez issued a season-high four walks — all in the fifth inning, when he walked in a run with two outs.
“I don’t think that’s ever happened in my career,” Gonzalez said. “With them being patient, it’s a patient team. They were aggressive the first four [innings] and just became patient in the fifth. I can’t even understand it.”
Over six starts this season, Gonzalez is averaging just more than five innings per start.
All three runs against Gonzalez came with two outs Sunday, but he danced around further damage all afternoon. The Twins were 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position against him in the game.
Trevor Plouffe hit a two-out, two-run double down the left-field line against Gonzalez in the third, giving the Twins a 2-0 lead, but the Orioles starter induced a groundout from cleanup hitter Chris Colabello to get out of the inning.
The Twins had runners at second and third bases with no outs in the fourth, following a leadoff single by Jason Kubel and a double by Kurt Suzuki, but Gonzalez retired the next three hitters, striking out Eduardo Escobar and Pedro Florimon to end the inning.
He wasn’t as lucky in the fifth, loading the bases before issuing a two-out walk to Suzuki.
“I don't even know what happened,” Gonzalez said of his second-shortest outing of the season. “I thought I was throwing the ball well, and they were just being patient. The first four innings, they were being aggressive, and it’s crazy to be in that situation, throwing a lot of balls and walking guys. That’s not me.”
The fifth inning began with Gonzalez walking Twins leadoff hitter Brian Dozier, who stole second and then third without a throw as the Orioles employed an infield shift, expecting the left-handed-hitting Kubel to pull the ball.
“That changes the game,” Gonzalez said of the leadoff walk to Dozier. “He’s that type of guy that’s going to try to get you distracted when he’s on base. But it doesn't matter what he does out there. I’ve still got to make my pitches.”
The Orioles bullpen had to account for 3 2/3 innings Sunday and 6 2/3 innings overall in the past two games.
“It’s tough because we want them to be fresh,” Gonzalez said about the relievers. “We try to go as deep as we can. I know it isn’t working out for me, but it will come. Just got to stay working hard and minimize damage and throw strikes when I need to.”
Right-hander Ryan Webb allowed a two-run double to Suzuki — one of his three hits in the game — in the seventh.
Trailing, 3-2, in the seventh inning, the Orioles had the bases loaded, but Markakis’ sharp comebacker was snagged by reliever Caleb Thielbar, who threw to first base to end the inning.
The Orioles were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position in the game.
“We are hitting the ball hard, just nothing to show for it,” Markakis said. “You are going to have streaks like that. You aren’t going to go out there and score six runs every day. You are going to have your struggles. And we got to find ways out of it.”
twitter.com/EddieInTheYardCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun