Orioles manager Buck Showalter made it clear in his pre-game comments Thursday that his focus was on the Minnesota Twins, not the challenges that his club has ahead of it over the next seven days.
But with the first-place New York Yankees coming to town followed by the Boston Red Sox, and the short-handed Twins leaving, the 3-1 loss in front of an announced 16,769 at Camden Yards screamed of a missed opportunity for the Orioles to set themselves up for a decent homestand.
The Twins, depleted by injuries and illness, got seven shutout innings from Orioles nemesis Scott Baker and walked out of Camden Yards with a split of the series despite not having Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Tsuyoshi Nishioka for any of the four games and Delmon Young for just one.
Thursday night, all they needed were a couple of swings from Jim Thome and a dominant Baker, who out-dueled an effective Jeremy Guthrie to improve to 6-0 with a 2.17 ERA in eight career starts against the Orioles. It was the 19th time in 19 games that the Twins have scored a five runs or fewer, setting a franchise record to start a season.
"They are missing big, big parts of their lineup so to not be able to get that win tonight is huge," said Guthrie, who allowed two runs over seven innings and fell to 1-3 despite a 3.12 ERA. "I have all the respect in the world, though, for Baker. I have come up pitching against him, I have seen him throw at every level, it feels like, from when I started. And he did what a [No.] 1 [starter] does tonight. He held the team to zero runs and pitched great and pitched out of jams when he needed to. So you tip the cap to him, and hopefully I can be better. It is expected of me. I have been up against some great guys over the years, and I just haven't gotten the job done nearly enough. Hopefully, I can do better."
The Orioles' offense, which appeared to break out of its early-season slump in tallying 11 runs Tuesday, was held scoreless for 12 consecutive innings until Vladimir Guerrero's infield single off former Oriole Jim Hoey in the eighth inning cut the home team's deficit to 3-1.
On the play, shortstop Alexi Casilla made a diving stop to keep the ball in the infield and Derrek Lee at third base. That loomed large when left-hander Glen Perkins came out of the bullpen and needed just one pitch to retire the potential go-ahead run in Luke Scott, who grounded out to second base, stranding two base runners.
In the ninth, Twins closer Matt Capps allowed a two-out single to Matt Wieters before striking out Robert Andino on three pitches to end the game and deal the Orioles their ninth loss in the past 11 contests. Showalter had Jake Fox available on the bench but opted to stick with Andino, who has been swinging the bat well.
"[Guthrie] gave us a real chance to win, deserves a better fate," Showalter said. "[He] Just ran up against a guy who was as good as he was tonight, and maybe a little better. We just didn't put much together offensively. We didn't square up many balls at all."
Baker, who allowed just four hits and walked one while striking out nine, was in trouble only twice, and both times he retired the slumping Nick Markakis to get out of a jam. Back-to-back two-out singles by Andino and Brian Roberts put men on first and second in the third, but Baker threw a 3-2 changeup and fooled Markakis, who popped out in the infield.
With the Orioles still trailing by a run in the fifth, Wieters hit a one-out double and Roberts drew a two-out walk, again bringing Markakis to the plate. He fell behind 0-2 and then evened the count before swinging at and missing a 2-2 curveball, the ninth pitch of the at-bat. Markakis went 0-for-4 to lower his average to .203. He has just three hits in his past 28 at-bats and has gone 3-for-16 with runners in scoring position this season.
However, on this night, he was just one of several Orioles hitters who had no answers for Baker.
"It's just one of those circumstances. It seems like we can't beat the guy," said Roberts, who was 1-for-2 with two walks. "You win with pitching and defense -- pretty evident, obviously, when you look at the way they won their two games."
The Orioles have scored a total of six runs in the 26 innings Guthrie has been on the mound this season.
"Well, it's not intentional," Showalter said. "We're trying, and Jeremy had a good season for us last year and obviously had some good starts this year and won a game in Tampa to start the season, so I don't think you dwell on that. You do what you can do, and there will be days where it'll be the other way around."
If there was one positive, it was that Guthrie "turned the corner," according to Showalter, in his recent bout with pneumonia that hospitalized him for two days. The right-hander said he felt strong throughout his 104-pitch outing, in which his biggest issue was two at-bats versus Thome.
In the second inning, Thome launched a 3-2 changeup over the wall in right-center field for his second homer of the season and the fourth of his career against Guthrie. Thome gave the Twins a 2-0 lead in the sixth by ripping a single to center that scored Casilla from second base.
"I was out-pitched tonight," Guthrie said. "I didn't make the big pitches where I needed to. It is a reoccurring thing, and it's not good enough, not good enough tonight, not good enough last time, not good enough the time before. So we'll work on it, try to get better, make better pitches."