ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Despite the strong start the Orioles had throughout the season's first seven weeks, they never owned a lead atop the American League East of more than two games. Heading into Friday's game against the co-division leading Rays, the division's five teams were separated by just three games top to bottom.
That means the Orioles have picked a poor time for their worse skid of the season — for their starting pitching to fall flat, their bats go cold.
Following their 5-0 loss Friday night to the Rays at Tropicana Field, the Orioles fell out of first place for the first time since May 5.
It was the first time the Orioles were shut out this season, and it was another fight from behind as starter Wei-Yin Chen allowed all five runs in the first inning.
The Orioles have now lost six straight and nine of their last 11, stuck in a free fall they must halt soon before they slide all the way down the division standings. They've now lost the first four games of their nine-game road trip that is entirely against AL East opponents.
"It's frustrating, but we got a good team here," center fielder Adam Jones said. "I'm not going to jump on nobody. We win and lose as a group, and right now we are not playing the best baseball and we need a kick in the pants right now to turn it around, because this division is not going to let up and we have to be the same way."
Over their six-game losing streak, the Orioles (29-23) have scored just 14 runs. They haven't had an extra-base hit in more than two games — since Ronny Paulino's double in the ninth inning Tuesday night in Toronto.
One game after managing just four hits Wednesday in Toronto, the O's had just four hits in 7 1/3 innings against Rays starter David Price.
"We can't let it snowball," Jones said. "We have to come out, we got to swing the bats. We just need to maybe be a little more aggressive. We got down early, can't let a pitcher like Price get a lead like that. But at the same time, we need to come out and swing the bats.
"We, as in all 25, we need to play better. And that's pretty simple."
The sputtering offense is just one part of the Orioles' struggles. In their last five games, the starters have pitched to a 8.06 ERA
"We're going to have to start doing some things that we've been doing to get to this point and be competitive," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "We've just got to get off a little bit better with our start pitching-wise. But it's all phases. We're going to have to be, until we get at full strength.
The Orioles placed right fielder Nick Markakis in the 15-day DL Friday, their eighth player on the list, but Showalter made it clear that wasn't an excuse.
"Tampa's got challenges physically," Showalter said. "Everybody does. [It's] part of it. You've heard me say it 100 times. Your depth is always tested over a season. We've just got to stay within ourselves. There's a fine line between trying to make something happen and pushing the envelope when it's not there."
The Rays (30-22) sent 10 batters to the plate against Chen in the first inning, capped by Hideki Matsui's two-run homer. He allowed five hits and issued two walks in the inning.
Chen, who threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings, allowed Carlos Pena to lead off the game with a double off the right-field wall and then moved to third on a wild pitch.
B.J. Upton's grounder to short allowed J.J. Hardy to throw home to get Pena, a heads up play by the Orioles shortstop.
But the Orioles couldn't capitalize on that. The Rays got consecutive singles from Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and Luke Scott, with Scott's two-run hit driving in two runs.
Then Matsui, playing his third game in a Rays uniform, took a Chen pitch down the right-field to make it 5-0.
Price held the Orioles hitless for the first 4 1/3 innings until Matt Wieters' single to right.
The Orioles had the bases loaded twice but couldn't score.
The yhad a chance to break through in the sixth, loading the bases with one out as Bill Hall and Robert Andino drew back-to-back one-out walks, followed by Steve Tolleson's single.
But J.J. Hardy flew out to center, and Tolleson was thrown out from center field tagging up and going for second.
"I knew the throw was going to come there," Tolleson said. "I just saw where he was in the outfield and thought I could make it. It was a bad play. I was a little bit too aggressive there in a situation where I really didn't need to be aggressive. My run really didn't mean much."
The Orioles loaded the bases in again in the ninth with one out, but Rays closer Fernando Rodney struck out Mark Reynolds and induced Chris Davis into a game-ending ground out to first.
"This is a resilient team," Tolleson said. "We showed that. I think we had a 12-game stretch in May where we won 10 of 12. We're definitely capable of doing that against teams in the East. And when you're playing teams in the East, you're obviously playing great teams with great pitching staffs. We just need to pick it up offensively and get it going."