Leaning against the railing of the visiting dugout at Minute Maid Park, all Orioles right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez could do Monday evening was watch in silence as one of his best starts of the season went to waste.
Jimenez, who had held the Houston Astros to one run on three hits through his first six innings of work, received a surprisingly quick hook from manager Buck Showalter after giving up a leadoff single in the seventh on his 91st pitch of the night.
He walked off the mound with a one-run lead, but saw usually dependable reliever Brad Brach blow that cushion as the Astros rallied for a gut-punch four-run seventh inning, handing the Orioles a 5-2 loss in front of 17,259.
“[Jimenez] didn’t deserve to have anything but a no-decision or a W out of that,” Showalter said. “Especially with the way Brad has been pitching. We just got a different Brad tonight.”
The Orioles (23-27) lost their third straight game and tied their season-worst four games below .500 as they opened a seven-game road trip to Houston and Cleveland that is now becoming a critical point in their season.
The Orioles were 1-for-7 with runners in scoring position on Monday and are 1-18 this season this season in games when they've scored two runs or fewer.
“Yeah I was a little bit [surprised],” Jimenez said of getting pulled. “But as a starting pitcher, you never want to come out of the game. But it’s part of the game. You have to do whatever they think is good for the team. This is how things are going for us right now. In another situation, we might get a double play and get out of the inning, but that’s how it’s going right now.”
Jimenez retired 10 of the first 11 batters he faced before he allowed Preston Tucker's one-out double in the fourth, which was Houston's first hit of the game.
He went into the seventh inning having allowed just one run — Luis Valbuena's solo homer in the fifth — and six baserunners (three hits, two walks, one hit batter) while striking out eight before Chris Carter singled to right to begin the inning.
As Valbuena stepped to the plate, Showalter immediately pulled Jimenez in favor of Brach, who had allowed just one run over his last 10 innings, posting 12 strikeouts and two walks in that span.
Brach walked Valbuena, then allowed a first-pitch single to pinch hitter Hank Conger, who entered the game batting just .156, to load the bases.
Brach fell behind leadoff hitter George Springer 3-0 before allowing a game-tying RBI single up the middle. He then fell behind Jose Altuve 3-1 before Altuve hit a sacrifice fly to center field that gave the Astros a 3-2 lead.
“Just fell behind and when you fall behind hitters they are going to get hits in the major leagues,” Brach said. “Did not do a good job of throwing strikes. Got behind hitters and didn’t do myself any favors out there. … It’s unfortunate because Ubaldo had such a good game. I come in there trying to get a double play and walk the leadoff guy which puts myself in trouble.”
After Tucker walked to load the bases again, Tommy Hunter allowed a two-run single to right, but Tucker was thrown out at third by right fielder Delmon Young to end the inning.
Chris Davis snapped a 1-all tie in the sixth inning with a one-out double off the right field wall, scoring Adam Jones from second base.
That chased Astros starter Brett Oberholtzer from the game, but right-hander Will Harris prevented any further damage, stranding two baserunners in scoring position when he struck out Steve Pearce and induced a fly-ball out from Caleb Joseph.
The Orioles took a 1-0 lead in the fifth inning on Ryan Flaherty's standup triple. Flaherty laced a ball into the right-center field gap that rolled up Tal's Hill in center field, allowing Pearce, who drew a leadoff walk, to score from first.
Overall, the Orioles displayed plenty of flaws to go around on Monday. After Davis’ run-scoring double with one out in the sixth, the Orioles stranded two with runners in scoring position. After putting the first two batters on base in the third, Everth Cabrera failed to drop a bunt to move them over and then struck out before Manny Machado hit into a rally-killing double play in the third after the Orioles' first two hitters in the inning reached. David Lough singled to open the fourth, only to get picked off moments later.
Showalter admitted that his team’s offensive woes -- and its failure to execute -- have affected the way he is managing the club.
“What it does is it puts you in a position where every time you get a run-scoring opportunity you better score,” Showalter said. “They haven’t been as often. Understand coming into tonight we only scored three less runs than last year. We know a couple people aren’t here. We aren’t lamenting that. So, we have to execute some [opportunities].”
Astros shortstop Marwin Gonzalez robbed Machado of a run-scoring hit with two outs in the fifth and Flaherty on third. Machado hit a ball up the middle that Gonzalez gloved, spun and threw in first in time to get Machado.
Even though Jones returned to the starting lineup as the team's designated hitter after missing the previous two games with a mild left ankle sprain, the Orioles were without shortstop J.J. Hardy, who sat out with left side soreness.
Hardy's absence was glaring, especially in the fifth inning. Following Valbuena's homer, Jimenez hit catcher Jason Castro with a pitch. Gonzalez then hit a sharp grounder to first that appeared to be an inning-ending double-play ball, but Cabrera -- filling in for Hardy -- dropped the ball on the turn.
Two batters later — with two on and two out — Altuve singled to right. The Orioles needed a pinpoint throw from Young -- who now leads the majors with eight outfield assists -- to throw out Gonzalez at home and end the inning.
“We have to come to the stadium every day with a positive mind that everything is going to change and just try to keeping working hard and hopefully one of these days it’s going to change,” Jimenez said. "Hopefully we’re going to be able to combine the offense with the pitching and the defense and everything.”