ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Dave Trembley was a bullpen coach and camp coordinator in spring training when the Orioles' rotation began to take shape. Those early weeks didn't include him as manager or Kurt Birkins as a starter, but so much has changed.
Whatever seemed improbable back then has become a part of everyday life for a team that can't find stability on or off the field.
Recalled from the minors five times this season, Birkins made his first major league start last night. He held a four-run lead, gave it up and watched from the dugout as the Orioles found another interesting way to lose.
Carlos Pena hit a tie-breaking two-run homer off reliever Jim Hoey in the seventh inning, the ball slamming into one of the circular catwalks as it arced toward the right-field seats, and the Orioles suffered their 12th loss in 13 games, 9-7, to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Pena set the franchise's single-season record with his 35th homer, and he did it in a fashion unique to Tropicana Field. The ball bounced off the C ring that holds a portion of the lights here as Nick Markakis raced after it. Markakis played the carom, but it wasn't necessary.
"I know the ground rules," Trembley said. "That ball's a home run.
Markakis wasn't as certain.
"I saw it the whole way," he said. "It's tough to call, because he hit it so high, and it's questionable whether it would have gone out or not. But I guess the rules are, it's a home run. But it definitely would have been close, because it was coming straight down."
Akinori Iwamura added a two-run shot off Brian Burres in the eighth inning, as the Devil Rays moved within three games of the fourth-place Orioles (59-77) in the American League East. Ramon Hernandez hit a three-run homer in the ninth off Al Reyes to make the score more respectable.
"You've just got to come back out and put that behind you," Markakis said. "We've still got a month left to play. We've still got to go out there and play baseball."
Birkins got the start after the Orioles traded Steve Trachsel last week, the latest adjustment made to a rotation that looks nothing like the one first crafted for the 2007 season. Manager Dave Trembley sorted through his options and decided Birkins was more rested than Burres and Jon Leicester.
"He was the guy available," Trembley said.
Birkins might not receive another chance after allowing four runs and six hits in four innings. Trembley wasn't making any promises before the game, and they would have been misplaced afterward.
The Devil Rays scored three runs in the third, loading the bases with no outs, and tied the game with another one in the fourth. Rocky Cherry replaced Birkins in the fifth and threw two scoreless innings, striking out four and hitting Pena in the batting helmet, after allowing four runs in his debut.
"Birkins pitched great the first two innings, and it seemed like as soon as we scored the four runs, he changed his whole approach to pitching," Trembley said. "He had the table set for himself after we scored the four and he let them get off the hook. His stride was long. He got underneath his pitches. He lost command of his fastball."
Birkins said he was making good pitches in the third, "but they just happened to be hitting the ball where we weren't."
"All in all, I thought I did all right," he added. "It just kind of fell apart in the third."
The rotation no longer includes staff ace Erik Bedard, who isn't available because of a strained oblique muscle. Jaret Wright hasn't started since late April because of a sore shoulder. Adam Loewen underwent surgery to repair a fractured left elbow. Trachsel was signed as a free agent to replace Kris Benson, who had shoulder surgery in spring training.
The Orioles won't get much pity from the Devil Rays, who have been pitching-poor since the franchise came into existence in 1998.
James Shields went seven innings last night and defeated the Orioles for the first time in seven career starts. They scored four runs off him in the third, but only one was earned because of two Tampa Bay errors.
The lead didn't last long. And neither did Birkins, who threw 71 pitches.
"I think I got a little tired in the fourth, but I felt pretty good today," he said. "I didn't get hit too hard. I made pitches when I had to. We just came up short."
The third inning included Carl Crawford's animated ejection for slamming his batting helmet at first base umpire Paul Nauert's feet after a blown call. Nauert ruled Crawford out on a bouncer over the mound, though Kevin Millar wasn't on the bag when he took Miguel Tejada's throw. A run scored on the play, and Delmon Young's two-out single delivered two more.
Crawford tried to get at Nauert by leaping on to first base coach George Hendrick, who stood in between them, and later threw his elbow pad and kicked at first base.
That kind of frustration usually is felt by the Orioles, who failed to score in the sixth after putting runners on the corners with no outs. And who failed to win after totaling seven runs.
"You have to have all three things. You've got to have pitching, defense and timely hitting," Trembley said. "Our pitching wasn't up to par."