ATLANTA - Orioles manager Lee Mazzilli did the math yesterday and counted one choice for his struggling ballclub. Only one.
Come back and fight.
"And that's what we're going to do," he said.
The Orioles aren't lacking in effort, just victories. An 8-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves yesterday left them 2 1/2 games out of first place in the American League East and searching for a remedy. They've lost five in a row, their longest slide of the season, after a 1-6 road trip. They're nine games above .500, the lowest since May 13. Players insist they're still confident, that the attitude hasn't changed within a clubhouse that's becoming more silent after each defeat.
They eat quietly and keep the sound turned low on the television, on the days they even bother to reach for the remote. A three-game lead in the division a week ago has morphed into their largest deficit of the year.
"It's frustrating when you have that competitive nature and you're scrapping," Mazzilli said. "You come off a good homestand, you're 5-1, and then you struggle on the road a little bit."
Braves starter John Smoltz made a bad situation worse for the Orioles (42-33), retiring the first 12 batters before Rafael Palmeiro homered to lead off the fifth inning, and pitching his third complete game this season.
"Teams go through down times. This was our time," said Palmeiro, who hadn't hit a home run to the opposite field since 2002. "Now we have to bounce back."
The task becomes more challenging without Melvin Mora, who missed the Atlanta series because of a strained right hamstring. Mora will try to run today before determining whether he can play against the New York Yankees, who begin the Orioles' weeklong homestand.
"It's been pretty difficult after losing Mora in Toronto," said Rodrigo Lopez, who allowed four runs in six innings and took the loss. "It's hard to go out there and get it going. Everyone is trying to stay positive."
Lopez (7-3) was unbeaten in six consecutive starts, his most recent defeat coming May 19. He didn't get comfortable on the mound or keep his pitches down until the third inning, after the Braves had built a 3-0 lead.
"I think the mound in the bullpen is higher than the one in the game," he said. "It was hard to make the adjustment. I was missing my spots, and I paid the price for it."
Andruw Jones, who won Saturday's game with a walk-off homer, delivered a run-scoring single in the first inning, and Rafael Furcal had a two-out, two-run triple in the second. Lopez retired the next 11 batters before Jones hit his 24th homer, tops in the majors.
"I thought I made a pretty good pitch," Lopez said, "but he's been pretty hot."
Handed the ball with his team trailing 4-1, reliever Steve Reed allowed four runs and five hits in the eighth. He recorded two outs, one of them coming on a play at the plate, and his ERA swelled to 7.39.
"Ground balls find holes when you're scuffling a little bit," he said. "We're still in the game when it's 4-1. To not keep the team in it is frustrating."
Reed has surrendered three runs or more on five occasions, pitching an inning or less each time. He has no immediate solution to his latest stretch of ineffectiveness.
"If I did, I'd be doing it. Trust me," he said. "You've got to keep grinding it out."
Sound advice for everyone.
"You can't get mad and upset if everyone is giving everything they have," Mazzilli said. "You can't ask for more than that."
Miguel Tejada said the Orioles need to "calm down," advice that's also aimed at himself.
"Everyone wants to contribute, and right now nothing is working out," he said. "But it's a long season. We can't put our heads down."
The starting pitching has to pick up. No one produced a quality start on the trip or went more than six innings.
Yesterday's lineup didn't include Sammy Sosa, who was given the day off against Smoltz. Not a bad idea, considering he's 4-for-38 with 18 strikeouts against the former Cy Young Award winner.
Smoltz (8-5) pitched as though he could have handled any lineup. He struck out seven and didn't walk a batter. He also had his first RBI since 1999.
"It just shows when you have a pitcher like him, there aren't going to be many chances," Tejada said.
A pitcher like Smoltz was exactly what the Orioles didn't need, not while trying to keep up with the Boston Red Sox, who have won 12 of 13.
"That's why this season is a marathon," Mazzilli said. "It could quickly change for us."
It also could get much worse, a thought nobody wanted to carry onto the team charter.
"It's part of going through a season. You're going to struggle," Palmeiro said. "Maybe a week from now we're three up again. That's why you strap it on and play."