For the first time in 15 years, the Orioles could call themselves playoff-bound, but the Orioles came to Tampa Bay to complete one of the unlikeliest of missions — to win an American League East title.
But the Orioles' title hopes took a hit here Monday night. A 5-3 loss to a desperate Rays team still clinging to its faint playoff hopes — along with the New York Yankees' 10-2 drubbing of the Boston Red Sox — dropped the Orioles to one game back with two to play.
“We didn't take care of our business,” center fielder Adam Jones said. “We can't control other people. We lost. That's something we had control over. When it comes to the Yankees, you can't control them, can't control whether they win or lose.”
The loss, which snapped a four-game winning streak, was just their fourth in their last 15 games.
It was a game the opportunistic Orioles usually win, but a costly fielding error and an offense that took eight innings to awaken proved to be the Orioles downfall.
The Rays scored three unearned runs — keyed by an inning-opening fielding error by third baseman Manny Machado — off Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen to open up a tied game in the bottom of the seventh inning.
“That's why they are where they are,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “They pitch well and they're very deep, and tonight's no different. But we had a shot because we pitched well. It's a difficult task, but as long as you stay in that striking distance. Matty gave us a big blow and we let them back up off the deck the next inning."
Chen found his comfort zone through the middle innings, retiring nine straight after yielding a solo homer to Ben Zobrist to lead off the fourth.
But he ran into trouble in the seventh after Machado bobbled Longoria's routine grounder off the unforgiving artificial turf.
“[I] should have caught it.,” Machado said. “[It] took a little side spin on me, ate me up. Should've taken a step forward, but I should have made the out. … It's an adjustment I need to make. I should have caught more grounders in BP and gotten used to it more. But it's no excuse.”
The Rays took advantage by plating three runs, capped by catcher Chris Gimenez's two-out, two-run double off Chen. Gimenez, who entered the game hitting .340 against left-handers, lined a ball into the right-field corner, putting the Rays up 4-1 and chasing Chen from the game.
“You can not blame anyone because this is part of baseball,” Chen said through interpreter Tim Lin. “The only thing I can control is the ball and the only thing I can pitch is the ball and throw the ball. That's the only thing I can control."
Chen, who was one of the Orioles best pitchers most of the season, hasn't won a game in six weeks. The 27-year-old left-hander, a Taiwan native who pitched the last four seasons in Japan, has lost four straight decisions and has gone seven or more innings in just one of his last 10 starts.
After the Rays added an insurance run off Pedro Strop in the eighth, the Orioles rallied in the night, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate with two on and no outs.
Trailing 5-1, right fielder Chris Davis launched a ball that hit off the C ring catwalk and was ruled a two-run homer for his fifth homer in six games. Davis, who was the American League Co-Player of the Week, has homered in five consecutive games, tying the longest streak in the majors over the past two years.
The Orioles (92-68) placed runners at first and second with no outs against Fernando Rodney, but the Rays closer struck out Jim Thome and Mark Reynolds and induced a lazy grounder back to the mound from pinch hitter Endy Chavez to end the game.
Television cameras showed Jones, this season's Most Valuable Oriole, hobbling on the bases in the top of the ninth – he was stranded on second. Jones said he was fine after the game.