The Orioles' first at-bat against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday night was a fitting microcosm of how poorly things are going for this team right now.
Manny Machado scorched a line drive to deep center field, a ball seemingly destined to go over the fence and give the Orioles a rare early lead. Machado watched while rounding first base as Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier jumped into the fence, extended his arm over it, and brought the ball back in for a harmless flyout.
"This is how it's going to start?" Machado said he thought to himself. "Oh man, that's just the icing on the cake. That's just how things are going around here, but, hey, he made a nice play there."
The losses continue to pile up for the Orioles as September arrives. Their 6-3 loss to the Rays on Monday had its moments. The Orioles showed patience against Rays ace Chris Archer early, despite being unable to score on him. They rallied in the middle innings against the Tampa Bay bullpen, a sign of the fight these players insist they still have.
But the result was the same, the Orioles' fifth straight loss and 11th in their last 12 games against a Tampa Bay team just as desperate in clinging to their postseason hopes.
The end result is that the Orioles (63-68) are now five games below .500 for the first time since June 6, when they were 25-30. They entered the night 5 ½ games back of the second wild-card spot held by the Texas Rangers, who played late Monday in San Diego.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter hoped shuffling the lineup — giving Machado his first big league start at shortstop and starting Matt Wieters at first base for the second time in his career — could give the Orioles bats a boost. He stacked the batting order with players who had good numbers against Archer, putting all three catchers on his roster in the starting lineup.
The Orioles forced Archer to throw 92 pitches through four innings, but they also stranded eight baserunners over those four frames, including four in scoring position.
"I thought we'd make a run at them," Showalter said. "We did, but we were just a hit away with some situations with some people out there, but we didn't take advantage. I was impressed with the at-bats. We had [Archer] over 100 pitches in the fifth inning. We had a lot better quality at-bats than we've been having. We just couldn't finish off those innings. When he went back out there or the sixth at 100-plus, you think you're going to benefit from that, but we weren't able to keep him at bay and we created a margin we couldn't overcome."
Their most consistent starter, left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, failed to get through the fifth inning, his shortest start in a month.
And the Orioles offense — which hadn't scored since plating three runs in the fifth inning of Saturday's loss in Texas — extended their scoreless streak to 19 innings before finally scoring on Adam Jones' RBI single in the seventh.
The Orioles rallied for three runs in the seventh. Jones' run-scoring single off Rays reliever Matt Andriese was followed by a two-out, two-run single by Steve Clevenger, but their comeback was too little, too late.
A Rays team that ranks last in the American League in runs scored blasted three homers off Orioles pitching, including two off Chen, who has allowed a team-high 26 homers this season, tied for third-most in the AL.
Trailing 3-0, the Orioles stranded the bases loaded in the fourth when struggling left fielder Gerardo Parra, the team's trade-deadline acquisition, struck out to end the inning.
"We're seeing the ball," Machado said. "We're having quality at-bats. We didn't come [through in the] clutch. We had a couple of situations, myself [included], runners at first and second, to do something and it just didn't happen. I think that's what it is. I think we're just one pitch away and I think we have to stay with that mentality there and just live in the moment. Don't try to go up there and hit homers. Obviously, that's going to help us in some situations, but live in the moment. … Don't try to do too much. Just try to get on base. This is a team. Let the other guy behind you pick us up."
Archer (12-10) lasted six shutout innings, allowing just four hits and striking out six while walking three.
Chen (8-7) allowed just one hit over his first 3 2/3 innings of work — a leadoff triple in the second by Logan Forsythe, who scored on a sacrifice fly two batters later to put Tampa Bay ahead 1-0 — but then yielded four straight hits with two outs in the fourth.
"He was OK, but it wasn't as good as he's capable," Showalter said of Chen. "I thought the way he started out, I thought we were going to have a really good outing from him, which we needed. He's a couple pitches away from it. I thought the two-seamer he was trying to go down and away, they jerked across the plate that they hit out of the ballpark was a pitch he'd like to have back."
With Forsythe on first after a single, Asdrubal Cabrera crushed a 1-1 pitch deep down the left-field line for a two-run homer, giving the Rays a 3-0 lead. Evan Longoria also homered off Chen, a solo blast in the sixth, and Tim Beckham launched a solo homer off reliever Brad Brach in the sixth.
Chen allowed five runs on nine hits over 4 2/3 innings, his shortest outing since going 3 1/3 on July 31 against the Tigers. The five runs he allowed were the second-most this season for Chen, who had allowed three runs or fewer in 16 of his last 17 starts.
"You have to pitch to the corners because they are major league hitters," Chen said through interpreter Louis Chao. "If you keep pitching down the middle you will get hit."
Over their last eight games, Orioles starting pitchers have posted a 6.80 ERA, allowing 34 runs over 45 innings. Starters have failed to go six innings in five of those eight games.