BALTIMORE -- If the Orioles are going to stay in the playoff race, without question, the starting pitching has to hold up. But while the team's rotation appears to have turned a corner, the lineup has done anything but.
Baltimore's bats continued what has been a frustrating six-week stretch, squandering its sixth consecutive quality start -- this one from Wei-Yin Chen -- en route to a series-opening 3-1 loss to the Rays. Tuesday's loss puts American League East-rival Tampa Bay back within a game of the second-place O's, who are in a dogfight with numerous teams in a Wild Card race that is likely to come down to the wire.
"You'd like to take advantage of them," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of a stretch of solid starting pitching that is the club's longest since turning in seven consecutive quality starts Sept. 29, 2010-April 4, 2011. "Three hits is going to be tough to win many games."
The Orioles have scored two runs over their last 18 innings, and have been held to four runs or fewer in seven of their last eight games. They have had one hit with runners in scoring position in four of their last 15 games, held hitless in six more, including an 0-for-4 showing on Tuesday.
Coming off a 5-3 road trip in which the O's showed their resiliency after dropping the first two games in Minnesota, Adam Jones got his team on the board with a solo homer in the fourth inning. The two-out shot, which came off Rays' starter Jeremy Hellickson's 1-1 offering, went screaming into left field and marked the 12th of Jones' 23 homers that have given the Orioles the lead.
"I mean, Hellickson's good for a reason," said Jones, who struck out with runners on first and second off closer Fernando Rodney. "We hit balls and some line drives right at guys. It happens. We put ourselves in a great chance in the ninth inning against their closer. You look at the negative, we're looking at the positive. We're putting ourselves in the position."
But the O's couldn't gain any momentum, unable to muster up another baserunner against the 25-year-old Hellickson until Nick Markakis' one-out double in the sixth. That extra-base hit, which bounced off the right-field scoreboard, went for naught as J.J. Hardy and Jim Thome both grounded out.
"Helly was more aggressive with his fastball, I thought, in the strike zone and his curveball was a weapon," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of Hellickson, who picked up his first win since May 16. "[He] didn't rely too heavily on the changeup and the cutter was minimal, which I liked. So I thought he pitched more, really a brighter game tonight. I liked it."
Chen held his own against Hellickson and continued what has been a solid rookie campaign in tossing 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs on four hits and three walks. Two of those runs came in the top of the fifth, with Chen surrendering a homer to unlikely Brooks Conrad. The Rays' No. 9 batter, Conrad was 2-for-30 with 18 strikeouts over his last 12 games and penciled in Tuesday for his first start since July 7th. His two-run homer, which also scored Sam Fuld, was just his second of the season.
"I felt like I made one mistake and that's why I lost tonight," Chen, who turned in his third consecutive quality start said through his interpreter. "I feel strong and I kept fighting, I never gave up."
Even when called for a balk in the sixth-inning, Chen, who stepped off the mound and raised his hands up in disbelief, didn't let things unravel. After a leadoff walk to B.J. Upton, second-base umpire Gary Darling called a balk on Chen -- who Showalter said was wiping his hand on his leg -- to advance Upton to second. He later scored on Jeff Keppinger's single.
"I thought he held it pretty good after the fact," Showalter said when asked if he thought Chen was frustrated by the call. "I think everybody was. He's competitive. I think some people miss that about him. This guy likes to compete. He really likes to win."
It's been tough lately given the way the offense has supported Chen, who has one win in his last seven starts. The Orioles, who have a .150 batting average with runners in scoring position over a 34-game stretch, have scored three or fewer runs in nine of Chen's last 13 starts.
"We have to come out and swing the bats," Jones said. "We've got [David] Price and [James] Shields the next two days. We know that's not easy. Everybody knows it's not easy. But hey, it's a test we have to pass. We have to go up against them and bust their tails."
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.