Like so many outings by the members of the so-called cavalry before him - including outings by Zach Britton himself - Monday's game saw the Orioles starter relatively breeze through the first two times through the lineup. With a low pitch count entering the sixth inning, visions danced through our heads of that unicorn, the seven inning start. He would not even make it out of the sixth, letting five straight Indians reach base and three runs score. That was all Cleveland would need to send the O's to what became a 5-2 defeat.
The abrupt meltdown by Britton was as sudden as it was predictable. This is what happens. These are why these guys cannot be starters at the major league level. This is why he was slumming in Norfolk for so long and this is why he may find himself slumming there again soon. Even on a day where he looks to be on pace for a career high in strikeouts, with five through three innings, Britton cannot close the deal. He cannot even go more than five innings and save a little work for the bullpen.
The game, as so many were, was promising once. The O's took an early lead off Cleveland starter Ubaldo Jimenez when Nick Markakis hit a solo home run to center field in the bottom of the first inning. It was the eighth of the year for Markakis, measured at 404 feet. That gave a 1-0 lead to the Orioles, a pleasing development for a modest but vocal crowd of 18,544 at Camden Yards.
They proved incapable of adding to that lead despite getting a number of men on base over the next two innings. A pair of unlikely back-to-back walks issued to Matt Wieters and Travis Ishikawa brought up Ryan Flaherty with two down. You would have expected Flaherty to make an out, and you would have been wrong. He singled to center, but unfortunately, lead runner Wieters did not have the speed to score. This was the only hit the Orioles got with runners in scoring position all game, and it did not plate a run.
Nate McLouth popped out with the bases loaded to end the two-out rally. He is now 0-10 with the bases loaded on the season.
The third inning saw a similar story, with back-to-back singles from Markakis and Adam Jones, this time with only one out, but Chris Davis flew out and J.J. Hardy struck out. Wieters gave the Orioles a 2-0 lead with a shot to center of his own - 416 feet for him - to lead off the bottom of the fourth. It was the 10th home run of the year for Wieters, and the last time the Orioles would score in the game.
As for Britton, he'd gone through the first five innings allowing an average of only a baserunner per inning, but Jason Kipnis led off the sixth with a double. Long-time Orioles nemesis Nick Swisher, roundly booed every at-bat today, scored Kipnis with a single and moved up to third when Carlos Santana added a double. With runners on second and third and none out, you could not feel good about Britton limiting the damage.
Mark Reynolds came up to the plate and Britton could not find the strike zone to start the plate appearance. That led to an intentional walk being issued, loading the bases to set up a force at every base.
Britton got the next batter, Michael Brantley, to get just the grounder that he needed to get. The ball was grounded past the pitcher's mound and into center field for a two-run single, giving the Indians a 3-2 lead they would never relinquish.
We pause briefly to step out of the realm of objective fact and into the realm of subjective opinion: if Britton could have fielded his position even somewhat on this worm burner, the result of the play would have been a 1-2-3 double play that would have put a serious damper on the threat. Here is the video of the play. What do you think?
That was the end for Britton, who pitched five innings plus five batters, giving up six hits, three walks, and three runs, all earned. It was not the end for Cleveland's scoring. Tommy Hunter pitched the rest of the sixth, and the seventh, in scoreless fashion. Darren O'Day came in for the eighth, allowed a single to Reynolds, and then a home run to Brantley. He would leave without retiring a batter.
The O's hitters were not so fortunate against the Cleveland bullpen. Hardy led off the bottom of the sixth with a single. Jimenez left the game after a Wieters strikeout, with Indians manager Terry Francona summoning Rich Hill, who sported a 7.58 ERA, to face three straight lefties starting with Ishikawa. Buck Showalter pinch-hit Danny Valencia, which is just the matchup you want, but Valencia looked like he had never seen a breaking pitch in his life and struck out. Flaherty popped out to short and that was that.
The O's would not get a baserunner against a Cleveland's parade of relievers until there were two outs in the ninth inning, when Flaherty worked a walk. In the interim, there had been complete and total failure against the likes of Bryan Shaw, Joe Smith, and Vinnie Pestano.
McLouth followed the two-out walk in the ninth with a single, his first hit of the game. The portion of the crowd that stuck it out to the end had reason to hope with Machado coming up, but he popped out to short and the game ended. Machado was 0-5 on the night.
Britton took the loss, dropping to 1-2, with Jimenez picking up the win and raising his record to 6-4. Pestano was credited with his fourth save of the season.
The loss marks only the second time all year the Orioles have had a losing streak of four games or more. Feels like there must have been more than that, but it is not so. Still, until more than two starters are stepping up out of every five games, it is hard to feel good about the team's prospects, however good their offense may be.
Here is a hilarious piece of optimism from the Orioles post-game notes: Wieters is now batting .625 (5-for-8) with three doubles, a home run, four RBI and a walk in two games when batting in the seventh position in the lineup.
The O's will be looking to stop the skid and their descent down through a suddenly-tight AL East on Tuesday as the four-game set against the Indians continues. Ground-ball pitcher extraordinaire Justin Masterson starts for Cleveland, with staff ace Chris Tillman (?) getting the ball for the O's. The game has a 7:05 start time.