HOUSTON — The Orioles jettisoned struggling right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez to the bullpen last week, giving his spot in the rotation to Alec Asher, hoping the relative newcomer would be able to provide the floundering Orioles with more innings.
But fitting with the way mostly everything has backfired during their three days here in Texas, Asher lasted just two innings after being staked to an early three-run lead and left the game after a six-run second, replaced by Jimenez.
While this core group of veterans has faced its share of obstacles over the past five years, the Orioles reached uncharted territory after their 8-4 loss to the front-running Houston Astros, completing a three-game sweep of the O's at Minute Maid Park.
"The command that he showed us out of the bullpen just kind of left him," manager Buck Showalter said of Asher. "He had a good, clean inning, a shutdown, after we scored a couple and you could see watching how far he was missing his area he was trying to throw it to. Pretty simple. You throw a lot of balls in the center of the plate, they're going to end up where they ended up."
The Orioles (25-23) have lost seven straight, their longest losing streak in more than six years, since losing nine straight July 4-15, 2011. The Orioles have lost six straight six times since then. They have also lost 13 of their past 16.
Asher, who sparkled in the bullpen and in a pair of spot starts, failed to get beyond the second inning. He was battered around in a 42-pitch second during which the Astros compiled four extra-base hits, including a two-run homer by right fielder George Springer that put Houston up 5-3.
"You start falling behind hitters like the caliber of that team and you're in trouble," Asher said. "Just one thing after another and you find yourself giving up a couple runs and it's tough to get out of it."
It was an inning Asher couldn't survive. Having been used in relief for most of May, he hadn't thrown more than 41 pitches in an outing — let alone an inning — in three weeks. Showalter said Asher was equipped to go 90-95 pitches, but he was pulled after just 54.
"I'm sure that he certainly exerted himself a lot there," Showalter said. "The Astros didn't cooperate and his command didn't."
"Very disappointing," Asher said about his performance. "I feel like I let my team down. I didn't do my job, but it's over now. There's nothing you can do about it. You just go back and try to get better and go from there."
The Orioles scored three runs in the first two innings off Astros starter Lance McCullers, all three runs driven in by second baseman Jonathan Schoop.
Two batters into the game, Schoop put the Orioles up 2-0 on his seventh homer of the season, taking a 2-2 changeup into the left-field stands. The Orioles added a run in the top of the second — taking advantage of two errors — when Schoop drove in Welington Castillo on an infield single to shortstop.
That's when the wheels came off for Asher, who saw the Orioles' lead disappear when he allowed four of the first five hitters in the bottom of the second inning to reach base.
With two on and one out, Marwin Gonzalez hit a ball off Asher that dropped into an alcove along the left-field wall — a ball that had a 14 percent probability of being a hit by exit velocity and launch angle — and scored two runs. Yuli Gurriel followed with an RBI double that tied the score at three.
Two batters later, Springer hit a 2-2 cutter over the left-field wall an estimated 428 feet to give the Astros a lead they wouldn't relinquish. They added a run in the inning when Josh Reddick tripled down the right-field line and José Altuve drove him in with an RBI single to make the score 6-3.
Jiménez provides 'quality relief'
As unlikely at it might seem, Jiménez provided calm to the game after entering in the third, giving the Orioles six innings of relief. Jiménez was sent to the bullpen after being unable to go more than five innings in five of his past six starts.
Jiménez allowed two runs in the third after the inning was extended following an overturned out call at second base, but he held the Astros scoreless for the next five innings. He allowed five hits, struck out five and walked none.
"He gave up a couple early and then shut it down after that," Showalter said. "Really puts us in a good position health-wise going into tomorrow. That was something that probably will get unnoticed, but hopefully it's the start of him pitching some good baseball that we know he's capable of."
Jiménez allowed a double to Carlos Beltran on the first batter he faced in the third, but third baseman Manny Machado picked off the lead runner on Evan Gattis' grounder to third, catching Beltran off second base.
Jimenez then fielded a sharp comebacker from Gonzalez and turned what was initially a 1-6-3 inning-ending double play, but the out call at second was challenged and overturned to keep the inning alive.
Jiménez allowed an RBI single to Gurriel, and a second run scored when Gurriel came home on a wild pitch after a double by Nori Aoki.
McCullers settles in
After Schoop's run-scoring single in the second, McCullers allowed just one hit over the next 4 2/3 innings, a single by Castillo in the sixth, while retiring 12 of the final 15 hitters he faced.
McCullers, who had a 21-inning scoreless streak before Schoop's homer in the first, found effectiveness with his knuckle curveball, which he threw on 61 of his 105 pitches, drawing 10 swing-and-misses and 14 called strikes.
The Orioles' only run after the second inning came on a homer by designated hitter Mark Trumbo, who hit a 1-0 fastball from reliever James Hoyt the opposite way an estimated 407 feet over the right-field fence.