ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The obstacles the Orioles faced through the first four weeks of the season – several untimely injuries, an inconsistent pitching staff and this week's forced scheduling twist – pale in comparison to what has been going on in Baltimore over the past seven days.
The unrest in their home city forced the Orioles to move this weekend's home series to Tropicana Field for the latest chapter in a bizarre week. Despite playing 1,000 miles away from Baltimore, the Orioles wore their home uniforms, took batting practice first and hit in the bottom half of every inning. The custom music that played for batters' walk-ups and pitchers' entrances was the same as that played for the Orioles players at Camden Yards.
"We've got to stay in the moment here," manager Buck Showalter said before the game. " Our thoughts and prayers are very concentrated back in Baltimore. Even though it's in another city a long way away from Baltimore, I think we're still close to the situation back in our city. Everybody follows it and everybody's aware of what's going on."
Ultimately, after a week at Camden Yards that included gate closures, stadium lockdowns, back-to-back postponements and a game played void of fans behind locked gates, the Orioles' 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays Friday night offered some level of baseball normalcy between the lines.
"We are getting there," Showalter said after the game. "What's normal? What's normal in a baseball season? We've played games at 11:15 at night at Yankee Stadium. If you're constantly looking for normal, you are in the wrong profession. So many convenient excuses and the world we live in, you can't go there."
And on the field, an Orioles team that scored 31 runs over their three-game winning streak managed just four hits – all singles – and struck out 13 times. The top six hitters in the Orioles lineup were a combined 2-for-22 with 11 strikeouts.
Starter Chris Tillman, who gave the Orioles their fifth start of at least six innings, gave up the game's only two runs after issuing a two-out walk in the fourth inning that extended the frame for the middle of the Rays batting order.
This wasn't Camden Yards, but the Rays were cordial hosts. The video board close-ups featured as many Orioles fans as Rays fans. Mascots from both teams danced on their respective dugouts as John Denver's "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" played during the seventh-inning stretch. The Rays went as far as expediting a shipment of Baltimore's own Berger cookies for the media dining room in time for Friday's series opener.
"White pants, gray pants, it's still baseball between the lines," Showalter said. "We lost basically four home games, so it's just another challenge that we're going to have that other clubs may not. I hope they don't."
Inside the seating bowl of The Trop, where an announced 9,945 fans paid $15 each to sit anywhere in the lower deck, there was a level of ambassadorship. When a "Let's Go, O's" chant came from a crowd of orange behind the Orioles dugout, there was no booing from Rays fans. One fan wearing a crab hat held a sign that said, "Our Thoughts and Prayers Are With You, Baltimore."
"Regardless of what they were charging for a ticket, it was very impressive the crowd that turned out," Showalter said. "Whether it was Tampa fans or ours, there was a feel of [calm]. It was kind of nice not having certain elements you normally have, like it was a baseball game played for no other reason than the competition of the season. There was no real edge to anybody, it was just baseball and glad it was being played, obviously by Tampa here, but also by the Orioles somewhere. At some point it'll be back in Baltimore."
Between the lines, the teams combined for just eight total hits, and the Orioles (10-11) were shut out for the second time this season in a game that took just 2 hours, 19 minutes.
Tillman, who was pitching for the first time in eight days because of the scheduling changes, allowed just three hits, but yielded both runs with two outs in the fourth inning.
"He's made a lot of really good pitches, a lot of nice pitches," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "Just one of those games where I think he pitched a lot better than the outcome shows. He pitched well enough to get a W today. That's pretty much vintage Tilly of what we've seen the last three, four years. He did a really nice job, kept us in the game."
Tillman retired the first 11 hitters he faced before issuing a two-out walk to Asdrubal Cabrera with two outs in the fourth. Rays third baseman Evan Longoria followed with a double down the third-base line that found the left-field corner, scoring Cabrera from first. James Loney then slapped a hanging curveball to left for a looping opposite-field single that scored Longoria to give the Rays (13-10) a 2-0 lead.
"Two-out walks will always kill you, especially in that situation when you've got two outs," Tillman said. "Cabrera's the guy you want. You've got Longo on deck, one of the better hitters in the game. I've got to make my pitches there."
Tillman rebounded nicely from a seven-run outing in his last start April 23 in Toronto, providing the club's fifth straight start of at least innings. Over that span, Orioles starters have a 2.86 ERA.
Offensively, the Orioles never reached second base. After Jimmy Paredes' one-out single in the sixth inning, Rays pitching retired the final 11 batters of the game.
Rays starter Alex Colome, making his first start of the season after coming off the disabled list, held the Orioles to three singles over five scoreless innings, striking out six and walking none.
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"He pounds the strike zone," second baseman Steve Pearce said. "He was getting ahead of everybody. He threw a hard slider. It explodes out of his hand. The ball was jumping out of his hand. He was throwing mid 90s. He was throwing strikes, mixing everything up, keeping all the hitters off-balance. He did a great job tonight."
Tampa Bay's bullpen recorded four scoreless innings, capped by closer Brad Boxberger's perfect ninth in which he struck out the side.
Despite the loss, Joseph said he took special notice of the boisterous cluster of Orioles fans behind their dugout.
Yeah, there was a little bit of home on the road.
"Oh yeah," Joseph said. "You could hear them. They were doing the chants. … We could hear them and we were trying our best to get the W for them, so hopefully we can show up tomorrow and do that for them."