ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The game was essentially lost when Orioles starter Brian Burres didn't survive the fifth inning, with the Tampa Bay Rays scoring six times off him after they entered the inning without a hit.
But the tone was set in the first inning, when the Orioles loaded the bases with one out against Jeff Niemann, a pitcher making his major league debut, and couldn't score. The Orioles stranded nine runners in the series finale with the Rays yesterday and were 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. That, just as much as Burres' fifth-inning struggles, was the cause of a 6-2 loss before an announced 16,748 at Tropicana Field.
The defeat, the Orioles' fourth in their past five games, ended a 2-4 road trip. They'll start a seven-game homestand tonight against the Toronto Blue Jays, who pulled into a first-place tie with the Orioles (7-5) with a victory yesterday. The Orioles will be looking for their offense to return to the form it showed in the first week of the season.
"It's been somewhat sporadic," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said of the offense. "It either comes all at once or it's been missing. But those guys who have had those opportunities have been up there many times before. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn't. You'd like to think that maybe now going home we'll get on a roll somewhat and those hits will start falling in."
The Orioles stranded 43 runners on the six-game road trip. In the three games at Tropicana Field, the Orioles were 5-for-26 (.192) with runners in scoring position.
They really needed a big hit in the first inning yesterday off Niemann, the fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft out of Rice University. Niemann, a 25-year-old right-hander, was struggling with his control, and his defense did him no favors, as shortstop Jason Bartlett's throwing error loaded the bases.
However, the Orioles let him off the hook when Aubrey Huff fouled out and Luke Scott flied out to deep right to end the inning. Niemann settled in and allowed only one run - on Nick Markakis' first homer of the season - through six innings.
"We had him right where we wanted him," Trembley said. "I thought the guy looked tentative. He was having problems getting his pitches across for strikes. We had the right guys up there. It would have been nice to put three on the board, and I think that would have set the tone for the game. Conversely ... it looked like he got a second wind and got some confidence, and we didn't do much against him."
Down 6-1 in the seventh, the Orioles again loaded the bases, this time with none out. But they scored only once, when Markakis worked Dan Wheeler for a bases-loaded walk. Millar and Huff struck out, ending the inning.
"We had so many opportunities, we just couldn't capitalize on the big hit," said Huff, who went 1-for-12 in the series. "You just have to keep staying relaxed and go out there and have fun. Obviously, today wasn't too much fun."
That was especially true for Burres, who had cruised into the fifth inning without allowing a hit. A leadoff walk to rookie Evan Longoria started his problems, and then he gave up singles to Justin Ruggiano and Mike DiFelice to load the bases with none out.
Akinori Iwamura drove in a run with a one-out single, then Carl Crawford drove in two with a single. Carlos Pena struck out, but B.J. Upton ended Burres' day with a long three-run homer to left that increased Tampa Bay's lead to 6-0.
"I wasn't hitting spots very well," Burres said. "They just hit the pitches that were up in the zone. There's not much I can do about it now."