Orioles begin challenging stretch with loss

BALTIMORE - The Orioles returned to Camden Yards for the first of a six-game homestand, and the likely start of a challenging finish to the regular season.

They had 66 games remaining as of Tuesday, and 56 of them were going to be against teams either leading their division or within striking distance of the wild-card race. The first foe was Tampa Bay, and the Rays snapped a two-game skid by beating Baltimore 3-1 in front of 17,592.

Tampa Bay is one of five teams on the Orioles' upcoming schedule fighting for a wild-card spot, joining Oakland, Boston, Toronto and Chicago in the mix. Three other soon-to-be opponents, New York, Texas and Detroit, are current division leaders.

Things aren't going to be easy, it seems, for Baltimore down the stretch. Particularly since the club tends to go punchless for long periods of time.

The Orioles (51-46) dropped their second straight game after a five-game winning streak, and couldn't figure out Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson Tuesday night. Meanwhile, Wei-Yin Chen kept his team in the game, but the offense, as it has done more often than not for the left-hander, couldn't come through.

Baltimore totaled three hits against Rays pitching, and the Orioles have scored three runs or less in nine of Chen's last 13 starts.

"Deserved a little better fate," manager Buck Showalter said of his lefty. "Their guy was real good, too."

Hellickson (5-6) won for the first time since May 16, a span of nine starts, and he's now 5-2 lifetime against the Orioles. And unlike his counterpart, Hellickson got just enough offense to win.

Ninth-place batter Brooks Conrad, who came into the game hitting .184 with one home run in 49 at-bats, hit a two-run homer with two outs in the fifth inning to put Tampa Bay ahead 2-1. Chen walked B.J. Upton to start the sixth and committed a balk that pushed Upton to second.

Ben Zobrist got Upton to third with a sacrifice before Jeff Keppinger blooped a single down the first-base line that scored Upton and gave the Rays (50-47) a two-run lead.

Chen (8-6) was visibly upset on the balk call from second-base umpire Gary Darling, and Showalter said it likely cost his pitcher another inning of work. Chen gave up three hits in 6 1-3 innings and struck out four, but it wasn't enough.

"To be honest with you I have no idea" about the balk, Chen said through an interpreter. "I have a standard routine and I do the same routine every time. After the game, I went back to the video room and I keep checking ... I can only focus on one thing and that is pitching. And I just feel bad today. If you want blame, blame on me."

Rays closer Fernando Rodney earned his 20th save but not before walking two batters with one out and giving the Orioles a chance for a comeback. Rodney mixed his sizzling fastball with a tough change-up, however, and struck out Jones and Matt Wieters to end it.

Jones crushed a solo homer into the Rays' bullpen with two outs in the fourth, a 445-foot blast that gave the Orioles a 1-0 lead. It was Jones' 23rd homer of the season, but he wasn't crowing about it afterward.

"We put ourselves in a great chance in the ninth inning against their closer," Jones said. "You look at the negative, we're looking at the positive. We're putting ourselves in the position. And that's all you can do. We've just got to get that big hit."

Chen didn't allow a hit until the fourth, when Keppinger singled between third and short with two outs. But his biggest blemish was Conrad's two-run blast to left field that turned the game around.

"I know he wants one pitch back, we all do, but it's the game of baseball," Jones said. "If he buries it, great pitch, he goes out. But he battled. He pitches with a pair of them, and that's pretty much all I ask as a center fielder."