The Orioles again proved Friday night that there are few deficits out of their reach, injecting late-inning suspense into a game that appeared to be a blowout.
After trailing by eight runs in the eighth inning, they brought the tying run to the plate, falling just short in a 12-10 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays. But the concern in Birdland these days isn't about the offense, but a starting rotation that is struggling at a critical time of the season.
Right-hander Jason Hammel, the club's Opening Day starter, has often played the role of stopper when the Orioles have needed innings. But now he's stuck trying to stop an unsettling personal skid.
Hammel was unable to get out of the fifth inning for his second straight start, allowing seven runs on 10 hits over 4 2/3 innings as part of a 17-hit Tampa Bay hit parade in front of an announced 38,061 at Camden Yards.
The Orioles (23-18) have lost three straight for just the second time this year and the first time since the season's first week.
Hammel (5-2) allowed the most runs since yielding eight in a 3 1/3-inning start against the Los Angeles Angels last June 27. In 29 starts with the Orioles, it's just the second time he's allowed seven or more runs. Hammel hasn't completed six innings in three of his past four starts. And after pitching to a 3.79 ERA in six April starts, Hammel has a 10.43 ERA in three outings this month.
"It's tough," Hammel said. The minute you start beating up yourself, you kind of put yourself behind the eight ball. So I always expect the best out of myself, but I do know that I've been in this situation before, where I've been through a little tough run, that getting down on yourself and really beating yourself up and not letting yourself get better will only hurt you. So I've got to have a short memory and get back to work."
With the Orioles having begun a stretch of 17 games in 17 days — and 34 games in 35 days — on Friday, the team's rotation is struggling. In five of the past six games, Orioles starting pitchers have gone five innings or less — and they have lost four of those six games.
"We had some challenges last year, and we will again this year," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "That's part of it. It's frustrating for us as a team, not as a pitching staff, to score 10 and not be able to win the game. But it happens sometimes. I was an out or two away from getting some of those guys out of the game. Next thing I know, we had the tying run at the plate."
Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen –— two of the team's most consistent starting pitchers — are on the disabled list (Gonzalez hopes to return Tuesday from a thumb blister). Freddy Garcia struggled in his last outing, and the team is calling up Jair Jurrjens from Triple-A Norfolk to pitch today's game against Tampa Bay.
Jurrjens will be the team's 10th starting pitcher this season.
And Hammel, who prides himself in getting the Orioles deep into games, has struggled to provide an anchor for a floundering rotation.
"Definitely, that's my role," Hammel said. "That's any starting pitcher's role, to go in and pick your guys up when others go down. And I did it last year [when I got hurt] and they picked me up. So it is my turn to start pulling some weight, and I'm not doing it right now."
Tampa Bay's 12 runs Friday were the most the Orioles have allowed this season, and over the past two games the Orioles have allowed 34 hits.
The Orioles rallied to score six runs in the eighth inning, capped by left fielder Chris Dickerson's three-run homer off Rays reliever Kyle Farnsworth.
The Orioles sent 10 batters to the plate in the inning, scoring five runs with two outs. Matt Wieters hit a two-out single up the middle past a pull shift to drive in two runs and bring the Orioles within 12-7.
"You're not out of it until the game's over," Wieters said. "And that's something that in this clubhouse … as we're walking back to the clubhouse after the game, we still think we've got a shot."
Wieters was the final hitter Rays starter Jeremy Hellickson (2-2) — who became the first pitcher to allow eight earned runs in a game and get the win in six years — faced. Farnsworth came in and walked J.J. Hardy, then left a 1-1 cutter over the plate that Dickerson hit onto the flag court in right for his first Orioles homer.
The Orioles brought the potential tying run to the plate after Yamaico Navarro's infield single, but McLouth, the 10th hitter of the inning, flied out to left to end the threat.
Hammel walked a tight-rope throughout the first two innings before the Rays opened up for a four-run third that was capped by Kelly Johnson's three-run homer with two outs.
With the Orioles holding a 3-1 lead, the Rays cut the deficit to one on James Loney's sacrifice fly to left with runners at the corners. With two on, Hammel left a 3-2 fastball over the outside half of the plate to Johnson, who sent off the top of the grounds crew shed in right-center to give the Rays a 5-3 lead. The Rays later chased Hammel from the game in the fifth on Johnson's two-out RBI single that made it 6-3. Hammel threw 99 pitches, 58 of them strikes.
"He's fighting himself and just not getting the ball where he wants to get it," Showalter said. "Stuff-wise, he's in pretty good shape, but there's two parts to that equation, and nobody knows that more than Jason. … He's got some sequences and things in his favor that he can't take advantage of and get the ball in the right place in the right count."
The Orioles were forced to use five pitchers on the night, quickly depleting a bullpen that just had a day off Thursday.