ATLANTA - The advice came from all angles last night, different voices trying to send the same message. Orioles rookie Hayden Penn was getting lit up for the first time in the majors. Catcher Sal Fasano tried to counsel him, as did pitching coach Ray Miller, the situation growing urgent.
A game was unraveling, but the Orioles had to make sure a 20-year-old wasn't doing the same.
Given the responsibility of keeping a team in first place, would anyone have blamed him? Penn allowed six runs in the first two innings, including back-to-back homers by Marcus Giles and Andruw Jones, and the Orioles lost their footing atop the American League East as the Atlanta Braves completed a 7-5 victory before 43,822 at Turner Field.
The last words spoken to Penn on the field came from manager Lee Mazzilli, who removed him with none out in the third inning and the Orioles trailing 6-1. Mazzilli waited to signal for reliever James Baldwin, continuing a dialogue that brought out the compassion in the second-year manager.
"I was just trying to relax him. That's all you can do," Mazzilli said. "I have confidence in him. He's got too good of an arm. He'll be OK."
Mazzilli smiled at Penn (2-1), shook his hand after reaching for the ball and said, "It'll be all right." Penn nodded his head. He'd have to take Mazzilli's word for it.
"He just said he still had faith in me and it was just one of those days, part of the game," Penn said. "Go out there next time."
It might not look the same in the standings. The Orioles (42-31) had been in sole possession of first place since April 23, a span of 62 days, but the Boston Red Sox passed them last night and now lead the division by a half game.
Boston's early 3-0 lead was posted on the scoreboard above the second deck in left field, reminding everyone of the repercussions of Penn's bad start.
"He has a lot of pride in himself," Mazzilli said. "Because of the injuries, you feel like you're letting your teammates down. That's not the case."
Mazzilli kept looking into Penn's eyes before allowing the rookie to leave the mound. He'd say a few words, smile, and resume talking. No hard feelings, just a tough outing.
How bad was it? Penn's ERA jumped from 4.23 to 6.07. He hadn't thrown fewer than 4 2/3 innings in his first five major league starts, but he was gone two batters into the third. Ten of the 16 reached base, and the Braves hit for the cycle against him.
"The good pitches I made, they hit," he said. "The bad pitches, they hit harder."
Giles and Jones homered in the first for a 3-0 lead. Wilson Betemit led off the second with a triple and scored on Ryan Langerhans' single. Langerhans came around on rookie Kelly Johnson's double, and Giles' single increased to lead to 6-0.
A seventh run was charged to Penn in the third inning when pitcher Kyle Davies singled off Baldwin to score Adam LaRoche.
Jones' home run traveled an estimated 420 feet. Penn lowered his head and rubbed the back of it, as if he knew the situation would only get worse.
The Orioles tried to make it better for him. Baldwin turned in 3 2/3 scoreless innings, Larry Bigbie hit a three-run homer in the fourth and Brian Roberts had a bases-empty shot in the fifth, but they still lost for the fourth time in five games. They've also dropped eight of their past 10 on the road.
"When things are tough, this team keeps scratching like a son-of-a-gun," Mazzilli said. "They leave everything on the field and don't come in this clubhouse and hang their head. My guys, they give me everything they have."
Roberts barely cleared the fence in right field with his line drive, but it counted as his first home run since May 17.
Miguel Tejada reached on an infield hit with one out, and first baseman LaRoche misplayed Rafael Palmeiro's grounder near the bag. Second baseman Giles retrieved the ball and flipped it with his glove to Davies covering, beating Palmeiro by a step, and Sammy Sosa struck out looking at a 94 mph fastball.
Sosa was hitless in four at-bats, flying out to the fence in left field in the eighth and making him 2-for-24 in his past six games. The strikeout lowered his average to .220 with runners in scoring position.
"He just needs to go out and play and not worry about taking the whole world upon himself," Mazzilli said.
After Tejada stranded Luis Matos at second base to end the seventh, the Red Sox's 8-0 win became official. They were tied for first, a few innings away from taking sole possession.
"To come in and be down about falling out of first place, that's not something we're worried about right now," Bigbie said. "If it gets out of reach, then we'll worry about it."