Before the top of the seventh inning started last night, the Orioles' hope of ending a surprising month with another home victory was still very much alive.
Matt Albers got them deep into the game and they trailed by only two runs, a deficit they've overcome several times during their early run to the top of the American League East. But by the time the seventh came to a merciful end and several fans stood up and offered mock applause, it was painfully clear that there would be no comeback on this night.
The Tampa Bay Rays scored five times in the inning and sent 11 batters to the plate against relievers Bob McCrory and Dennis Sarfate, breaking open the game and then coasting to an 8-1 victory over the Orioles before an announced 11,944 at Camden Yards.
"I let my team down," Sarfate said. "Our hitters are doing a great job coming back, but seven runs is pretty tough to come back from."
The victory secured the Rays (15-12) their first winning April in franchise history and thrust the teams into a second-place tie behind the Boston Red Sox. The Orioles (15-12) ended the month with one of their poorest all-around performances of the season.
Albers turned in six solid innings in a spot start, allowing three runs and four hits. But the bullpen imploded, and the offense did little against Rays' starter Andy Sonnanstine (4-1). He surrendered only one run over eight innings. After Brian Roberts' RBI single in the third, Sonnanstine retired 12 straight Orioles.
"He just pitched better," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "You've got to tip your cap to him."
Things got interesting in the eighth inning when Sarfate and Rays slugger Carlos Pena exchanged words. Ultimately, plate umpire James Hoye and Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez stepped in front of Pena and there was no further incident. What triggered the shouting match was a bit of a mystery to both sides.
"I didn't know exactly what he was talking about, at first," Pena said. "I just saw him yelling, so I yelled back."
Several Rays felt Sarfate was telling Pena to stop stealing signs, an accusation Pena said was "totally ridiculous. "He's just making things up in his mind," Pena said.
Trembley also wasn't sure what caused the incident. "I think maybe Sarfate wanted him to get in the box. He was stepping out of the box, getting back in, stepping out of the box. But at that point and time, it was a moot point."
Said Sarfate: "I'll tell you what happened: I came in and gave up Bob's runs. I'm not going to comment on what happened later in the next inning."
In his major league debut, McCrory allowed two hits and walked two. B.J. Upton singled in a run with the bases loaded to chase the right-hander, and then Pena and Dioner Navarro each delivered two-run singles off Sarfate.
"I thought it was a good situation for [McCrory] to come in," Trembley said. "It was bottom of the order, we were behind in the game, just get three outs and get out. He wasn't around the plate enough. He'll be much better next time. We got that one out of the way for him."
Albers controlled the top of the Rays' order. Akinori Iwamura, Carl Crawford, Upton and Pena were a combined 0-for-12 against the Orioles' starter. But Tampa Bay's fifth, sixth and seventh hitters -- Evan Longoria, Eric Hinske and Navarro -- reached base six times in nine plate appearances against Albers. Hinske landed the big blow with a tiebreaking two-run homer in the fourth to give the Rays a 3-1 advantage.
"You obviously don't want those guys to get on, but they have a tough lineup top to bottom," Albers said. "I just kind of have to learn from it and move on."