BALTIMORE -- Say this for the Orioles: they've proven over the season's final two weeks that their "still fighting" mantra is more than merely lip service.
A Baltimore team that isn't in the American League Wild Card race -- and fell out of contention long ago -- has done its best work in the September spotlight, taking a reeling Red Sox squad to the wire before suffering Tuesday's 8-7 loss. Boston, which remains tied in the Wild Card race with Tampa Bay heading into the final game of the regular season, was forced to pull out all the stops in holding down Baltimore, with center fielder Adam Jones stranding the tying run on second when he bounced a ball to third base on closer Jonathan Papelbon's 28th pitch.
"I think everybody felt like we'd make a run at them, and we did over the course of the game," manager Buck Showalter said of his club, which twice battled back from four-run deficits to keep the crowd of 22,123 at Camden Yards riveted until Papelbon's final pitch.
Winners in 10 of their last 15 games -- all against teams who are either playoff-bound or in contention when they faced Baltimore -- the Orioles have put together their second consecutive strong September, avoiding a 100-loss mark that seemed inevitable even as recent as last month.
"The potential's there," Showalter said. "We put a lot of the phases of the game together, but you've got to do it over a longer period of time like they have."
Rookie pitcher Zach Britton closed his 2011 campaign in stark contrast to the way it started, a microcosm of an Orioles season swayed by the effects of an unreliable starting rotation. The 23-year-old, turned in his shortest start since a one-out debacle at Yankee Stadium in July, exiting after issuing a pair of one-out walks in the fifth. The young lefty struggled with his location most of the evening, allowing fellow rookie Ryan Lavarnway, who homered twice, to collect his first Major League blast. The three-run fourth-inning shot off Britton (11-11, 4.61 ERA) gave Boston a four-run cushion and denied Britton, who also allowed a two-run homer to Jacoby Ellsbury, any chance of ending the season with a win.
"I don't think I threw the ball as well as I should have, or I'm capable of," Britton said, when asked to assess if his rookie season was a success. "That's something that's definitely frustrating, going into the offseason, knowing that I could have done better."
Britton, who had an erratic season, said he'll use the experience as motivation in 2012 "and make sure that next year when I get into situations like [Tuesday] ... I know how to get out of it."
"There's not some chapter in a book, 'A Young Pitcher Develops 101,' that says this happens and it leads to that," Showalter said. "But all things being considered, it's a good start for [Britton] and I hope it's the start of a long, good career for a young Orioles pitcher for us."
The Orioles' offense chased Boston starter Erik Bedard from the game before Britton, marking the second time in a week the lefty failed to complete four innings against his former club. Vladimir Guerrero's two-out double in the first got the O's on the board, and a two-run blast from catcher Matt Wieters helped spell the end of Bedard's night. After Wieters' homer, Mark Reynolds worked a one-out walk and Chris Davis singled to prompt manager Terry Francona to dip into his bullpen.
But while the Red Sox's middle relief corps held the Orioles in check -- with Alfredo Aceves allowing only a Jones homer over 3 2/3 innings -- the O's couldn't do the same. Reliever Jason Berken allowed No. 9 batter Marco Scutaro to tack on another two runs with a sixth-inning homer, while Zach Phillips gave up another homer to Lavarnway, this one a leadoff shot in the eighth. Berken, who came on following Britton, issued a walk to load the bases in the fifth and narrowly escaped with Nick Markakis' diving grab robbing Lavarnway of another RBI.
Baltimore's offense came to life again in the eighth, when Daniel Bard replaced Aceves, and Wieters opened the frame with a single and avoided Jones' double-play ball to extend the inning. Davis made it count with a two-out RBI single, and Nolan Reimold followed with a triple off the right-field scoreboard to score Davis and close the gap to two. Wieters' fielder's choice scored J.J. Hardy in the ninth, drawing Lavarnway out to field the swinging bunt, and leaving home plate unprotected, and pulling the Orioles to within a run.
"They've been playing us hard for this series, [and the] last time they were in Boston," Red Sox outfielder Carl Crawford said of an Orioles team fresh off taking three of four at Fenway Park last week. "They [are] trying to knock us off, they [are] doing everything in their power to."
"We battled down to the final pitch," said Jones, who grounded out on the 10th pitch of the game's final at-bat. "That's the way I live."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.