For much of May, the Baltimore Orioles' starting rotation has excelled while the offense has been mired in an extended slump.
On May 21, though, the hitters did their part -- but it was the Birds' pitching that slipped up. The result was an O's loss during a 9-8 slugfest, resulting in a split of the two-game series in Pittsburgh.
Starter Chris Tillman -- fresh off a complete game shutout in Kansas City -- wasn't able to deliver an encore performance. In fact, he got 24 fewer outs and went one-ninth as many innings as he did against the Royals.
Tillman's command abandoned him from the beginning, and he retired three of the 13 batters he faced before his exit in the second inning. Tillman set the tone for his rough outing by walking the first batter he faced, Josh Harrison, and allowing four consecutive hits with one out. Six batters into the game, the Pirates had a 4-0 lead.
The Orioles' offense tried its best to give Tillman new life, erupting for six runs in the second off Pirates starter Wandy Rodriguez, who entered the game with a 6.84 ERA and nine home runs allowed in 25 innings this year. The inning featured a little bit of everything -- some well-hit balls, some sloppy Pirates defense and some good luck. Nelson Cruz got it started with his 14th home run, leading off the second. Later in the same inning, Cruz batted again with the bases loaded and hit a routine grounder that deflected off the third-base bag for a go-ahead two-run single, capping a six-run rally.
In between Cruz's two at bats, the Pirates cost themselves an out when they miscommunicated on a Tillman bunt and then threw wildly to first, loading the bases. Nick Markakis plated a run on a sac fly, Manny Machado doubled home another and Chris Davis' check-swing nubber past the mound resulted in an RBI infield hit. Rodriguez didn't make it out of the second inning.
So after Tillman's rough first inning, his offense picked him up, took the lead and gave him a chance to start anew, but Tillman squandered it. His second inning began exactly as his first, with a leadoff walk to Harrison, and the next three batters reached base as well, as the Pirates tied the game at six. That brought an end to Tillman's night -- he allowed six earned runs, six hits and three walks while recording three outs. It marked Tillman's shortest outing since July 16, 2012, when he gave up seven runs in 0.2 innings in Minnesota. That outing, too, came immediately after a start during which he pitched into the ninth inning.
For some reason, the Pirates have had Tillman's number this season. During his previous start against them May 1, Tillman threw 49 pitches in the first inning and was chased in the fifth with a 4-0 deficit. The good news for Tillman is that the Orioles won't face the Pirates again this season -- unless they happen to square off during the World Series.
On a more positive note, reliever Brad Brach did an admirable job in long relief. Although Brach allowed two of his inherited runners to score in the second (charged to Tillman), he ended up working four scoreless innings of his own. It marked the longest outing of Brach's major league career -- he hadn't worked more than two innings during any of his 112 previous big league appearances. Brach's effort helped save the Orioles' bullpen after Tillman's abbreviated outing.
Meanwhile, the Pirates' Vin Mazzaro gave a stellar long relief performance of his own, working 3.1 hitless, scoreless innings. And after the two teams combined for 14 runs in the first two innings, the scoring stopped for the next four.
In the top of the seventh, the O's rallied to tie the game -- but in the process, they ran themselves out of a potentially bigger threat. Three consecutive hits began the inning, plating one run, and the Birds loaded the bases with one out. Pinch hitter Steve Pearce -- getting his first at bat since May 13 -- picked up right where he left off before he was benched, ripping a single to right to plate the tying run.
On the play, though, third base coach Bobby Dickerson aggressively waved J.J. Hardy to the plate. Hardy was thrown out by such a large margin that he didn't bother to slide. It was a rare gaffe by Dickerson, who otherwise has been a solid third base coach for the Birds this year. Had he held Hardy at third, the O's would've had the bases loaded with one out for the top of the lineup. Instead, the Birds gifted the Pirates a second out and didn't score again; the inning ended when Manny Machado struck out on a curveball in the dirt with the bases loaded.
The Pirates seemed to take advantage of that halted O's momentum, grabbing the lead back in the bottom of the seventh on a Tony Sanchez RBI single off Ryan Webb. That gave them a 9-8 advantage that they ultimately held for the rest of the game.
The Orioles missed a chance to sweep the four-game season series against the Pirates, and in the process slipped a half game back in the division race behind the Yankees and Blue Jays, both of whom won May 21.
The Birds will return home May 22 for a four-game series against Cleveland. The Indians are red hot, coming off a sweep of the Tigers. On the other hand, they had to use nine pitchers during their 13-inning win May 21 -- including their originally scheduled May 22 starter, Josh Tomlin. The Orioles have a chance to take advantage of a depleted Indians bullpen and an emergency starter May 22.