Standing in the home clubhouse after the shortest outing of his career, Orioles left-hander Wei-Yin Chen pondered why he has given up so many home runs lately, including three in a 5-4 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday afternoon.
After allowing just three in his first eight games of the season, he's yielded 12 in his past eight outings.
Chen tried to answer the question as honestly as he could, but the truth is that he doesn't know why he is suddenly elevating pitches and why the opposition — including a struggling offense like the Rays' — now is making him pay.
“For every game, you don't want to give up any home runs. We didn't do that at the start of the season. I didn't do anything differently. Lately, I've been leaving more pitches up in the zone,” Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. “Maybe the opponents' hitters are studying me more than they used to. So if I didn't make the adjustment necessary, the results are going to look bad. So I'm going to look at that. I'm going to work on that and try to get a better result in the next few outings.”
On Saturday, Chen (7-3) allowed a homer to the first batter he faced, Desmond Jennings, on the fourth pitch of the game. He then surrendered a pair of two-run shots in the second and fourth in a career-low 3 1/3 innings pitched. Chen matched a season high with five runs allowed and tied a career high by giving up the three homers. He also struggled with his command, walking two and throwing 82 pitches, and never got his fastball beyond 90 to 92 mph.
“He missed four balls down the middle and they hit them really hard, three for home runs,” Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph said. “He had good stuff. He just kept missing up, especially with the off-speed stuff. Kept trying to grind it out, but couldn't get anything going.”
It might not have been only the homers that were unnerving Chen.
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said his team checked some of Chen's baseballs during the game — Maddon didn't elaborate on what the Rays were looking for — but the gamesmanship might have played a part in Chen's rough outing.
“He got a little bit nonplussed over a couple things there, and all of a sudden, there were certain things that … he didn't like that we did, like checking baseballs and stuff. So I think he got out of his game a little bit, because he's really good,” Maddon said. “But, primarily, I think the velocity on the fastball was down just a click.”
By the time he left the mound before an announced 36,387 at Camden Yards, the Orioles were down by five runs and Chen's streaks of nine consecutive starts without a defeat and four consecutive winning decisions were essentially over.
Yet the Orioles' bullpen again was great, and the homer-happy offense made it close at the end, scoring three runs in the eighth on a two-run homer by Manny Machado and RBI single by Adam Jones.
The Orioles trailed by one run with runners on first and third with two outs in the eighth and the club's best slugger, Nelson Cruz, at the plate. But Tampa Bay's new closer, Jake McGee, got Cruz to fly out to end the eighth, then threw a perfect ninth for his third save.
Despite 5 2/3 scoreless innings from the bullpen, which has allowed just one run in its past eight games, spanning 29 2/3 innings — the Orioles (42-37) limped away Saturday with their second loss in three games at home against the team with baseball's worst record.
The Orioles now hope to salvage a split of the four-game series Sunday with Miguel Gonzalez facing tough Tampa Bay right-hander Alex Cobb.
The Rays (34-49) had homered just twice in their past nine games before Jennings, Logan Forsythe and Kevin Kiermaier went deep Saturday. The Rays now have hit five of the 15 homers Chen has allowed this year.
Chen's lack of command is disconcerting for someone who needs to throw plenty of strikes to be effective. He has walked five batters in his past three games after issuing just one in his previous five outings.
“Fastball-wise, he was fine. Just the location — he wasn't getting the ball where he usually gets it,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “There wasn't enough off-speed pitches, the crispness of those, to offset the lack of command of the fastball.”
While Chen was reeling from his worst start of the year, former Oriole Erik Bedard (4-5) was turning in one of his best. The 35-year-old left-hander, who spent five seasons with the Orioles before he was traded to Seattle in 2008 for five players including Jones and starter Chris Tillman, lasted seven innings for the first time this season. Before the eighth, he had allowed just one run on three hits, including Nick Markakis' seventh homer of the season.
It was a departure from the last time Bedard faced the Orioles, when he was tagged for five runs in four innings on June 17.
The Orioles still made their typical late surge — they've now scored in the eighth inning or later in nine of their past 12 games. — but it wasn't enough. The hole Chen dug, starting with the game's first batter, was too deep to escape.
“I knew that from the beginning, I wasn't able to pinpoint my pitches well, locating my pitches in the zone,” Chen said. “And I started to think too much about a lot of things.”