7/7/2017 - The Orioles lost to the Twins Friday night, 9-6. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
Kevin Gausman was gift-wrapped a six-run lead Friday night at Target Field, and through three innings, he appeared well on his way to a third straight good start.
The script flipped on Gausman quickly in a 44-pitch fourth inning that took its toll on the Orioles right-hander in a 9-6 loss to the Minnesota Twins.
Gausman was unable to get through five innings, having given back the entire lead handed to him in an ugly unraveling of bad baseball this Orioles team has far too often put forth over the past two months.
"I don't think anybody takes that for granted," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of relinquishing the six-run lead. "We've done it to other teams that were up 6-0. It's the American League and you're facing good teams and guys who are hitting sixth and seventh in these lineups are hitting third and fourth in the minor leagues. Everybody is lethal and we treat them as such. But yeah, it's disappointing."
The Orioles (40-46) have lost the first five games of their seven-game road trip to Milwaukee and Minnesota and have fallen to six games under .500 for the first time since Sept. 8, 2015, when they were 66-72.
A team in a tailspin, the Orioles have now lost twice as many games on the road as they've won (15-30), a stat not befitting any team that can be considered a contender.
"I think the way we started off tonight, if I go out there and do what I can do and pitch even six shutout innings, it's a completely different ballgame," Gausman said. "We're sitting here right now talking about how we got off to a great start and doing what we usually do, which is hit homers, score a lot of runs and play solid defense, so obviously right now this is tough."
While this final road trip before the All-Star break might ultimately bury the Orioles' postseason hopes before the official end of the season's first half, this team's main concern is stopping its current dive.
"This is a tough loss and we're a tight-knit group, so we've talked about it," Gausman said. "It's not for a lack of trying, that's for sure. Everybody is busting their butt and doing everything extra they need to be ready, so obviously it's tough, but hopefully the baseball gods will start to look in our favor."
For the second time this year, Gausman — who retired 10 of the first 11 batters — couldn't hold a lead of at least five runs on the road. Gausman also blew a 5-0 lead going into the bottom of the fourth in a 9-8 loss at the Kansas City Royals on May 14.
Leading 6-0, Gausman ran into trouble in the fourth after allowing four straight one-out singles, including two infield singles. The last hit in that stretch was an RBI single by Eddie Rosario. Gausman then allowed another run to score by hitting Chris Gimenez with a pitch with the bases loaded.
Gausman struck out the next two batters to escape further damage, but it would quickly become evident that that inning did further harm.
Gausman faced four batters in the fifth without getting an out. Brian Dozier opened the inning with a triple down the right-field line, and Robbie Grossman followed with an RBI double on a ball that skipped off Trey Mancini's mitt at first. A throwing error by Manny Machado that went off Mancini's mitt put runners at the corners. Max Kepler's RBI single cut the Orioles' lead to 6-4 and chased Gausman from the game.
"He probably had as consistent a fastball as he had all year," Showalter said. "He couldn't command it those two innings where he got in trouble. His breaking ball had been better and it was early, but he just wasn't able to make that pitch to get out of there. I know it's real frustrating for him. You take the four infield singles and turn them into outs, it's a different situation."
He could only watch as right-hander Miguel Castro relinquished the lead on Kennys Vargas' two-run double off the center-field fence. Two batters later, Gimenez's RBI single off Castro gave the Twins a 7-6 lead.
"We got off to a great start offensively obviously, six runs in the first couple innings," Gausman said. "Just what a starting pitcher wants, but I just tried to battle as much as I could and like I said, left a couple key pitches in bad spots and unfortunately some of those infield hits kind of came around and scored. You just have to try to minimize."
Gausman's exit came at a greater cost as it forced the Orioles to use four relievers to account for four innings.
Orioles unable to manufacture
Even after losing the lead, the Orioles had an opportunity to come back in the sixth inning.
Trailing 7-6, Mancini and Hyun Soo Kim opened the inning with back-to-back singles. Catcher Caleb Joseph dropped a sacrifice bunt – a rarity for this team – to move both runners into scoring position.
The Orioles wasted a four-hit night from Machado, who homered twice in the loss.
They ran out to an early 6-0 lead on the back of three home runs, including back-to-back solo homers by .Smith and Machado to open the game off Twins right-hander Felix Jorge, who was making his second big league start.
Machado hit his second homer of the game in the third, a three-run blast into the left-field seats that gave the Orioles a 5-0 lead.
Despite his subpar .215 batting average entering the night, Machado now has a team-high 18 homers this season.
Smith, who had been hitting just .121 (4-for-33) over his previous 10 games, hit safely in each of his first two at-bats for just his second multihit game since June 19.
Britton allows two in eighth
Making his second appearance since returning from a two-month stint on the disabled list with a left forearm strain, closer Zach Britton allowed two runs on three hits in the eighth inning.
It marked the first time Britton allowed multiple earned runs in 83 outings dating back to Sept. 20, 2015. He allowed three unearned runs on June 21, 2016, the only time Britton allowed multiple runs last season.
Both runs off Britton came with two outs in the inning. After the Orioles erased Rosario between third and home on a fielder's choice rundown off the bat of Jorge Polanco, Polanco stole second and scored on Byron Buxton's RBI single.
Buxton then scored all the way from first base on Brian Dozier's RBI single that skipped past Tejada at shortstop.