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Over the course of a sports season, there are games that not only define a team but mold its psyche regarding how it sees itself and what it comes to expect of itself -- for better or for worse.

For the Baltimore Orioles, last night's 9-6 loss to the Washington Nationals was such a game. If  the Mother's Day Meltdown, the 6-5, ninth-inning loss to Boston a month ago, was a harbinger of what lie ahead for these Orioles, last night's defeat to the Nationals confirmed it.

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If you missed the details, here they are. For the 20th straight game, the O's had the lead, a couple of times, including 5-4 going into the top of the eighth. So, the bullpen buckled again and Washington grabbed the lead, 6-5. But wait, the Orioles did tie the game, 6-6, in the bottom of the ninth. As the game rolled into extra innings with Baltimore closer Chris Ray pitching, the Orioles were within one strike of retiring the Nationals in the top of the 11th. But Ray gave up  back-to-back walks (the first after having an 0-2 count) with a man on first and then, on his 38th and final pitch, surrendered a triple to Felipe Lopez.

What makes this loss even more bitter -- and telling -- than others (the O's are on a four-game losing steak and seven under .500) is that they did do some things right. Again, the starting pitching was good enough to win a lot of games. Steve Trachsel went seven innings and gave up four runs. The Orioles actually hit a little bit and had a late-game comeback to tie. But they had some defensive lapses, and to let a game like this one slip away against an opponent that, frankly, is just barely above Triple-A caliber speaks volumes.

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After the game, manager Sam Perlozzo had the look of a man whose shoes are nailed to a train track with the Metroliner headed at him.

Third baseman Melvin Mora's take: "This is getting hard to believe."

You know what's sad, though -- it really isn't. Although it is hard to watch.

* OK, some guys have it worse. Tampa Bay starting pitcher Edwin Jackson got just one guy out in a 9-0 loss to San Diego. Seven of the eight batters Jackson faced reached base, and he was already the likely losing pitcher while some of the few fans who attend Devil Rays games were still getting their seats dusted by the ushers. It went single, single, homer, strikeout, single, homer, walk, walk. This wasn't an unfortunate bolt of lightning for Jackson, either. He is 0-8 on the season. He has an 8.24 ERA. And he hasn't won a game since August of 2005 (he had no decisions last year).

* Mike Mussina (3-3) allowed two runs and six hits in 7 2/3 innings to win his first game since May 9, and Alex Rodriguez hit his 25th home run as the Yankees won their eighth in a row to inch above .500. New York is still 8 1/2 games behind the first-place Red Sox, who lost last night in Curt Schilling's first start since his near no-hitter. We'll see how close the teams are by the All-Star break.

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