Orioles reliever Michael Gonzalez reacts after giving up an… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
The Orioles knew they had little margin for error if they were going to finally beat Boston's Jon Lester and complete a sweep of the Red Sox at Camden Yards on Thursday night.
That fine line was smudged and then completely wiped away by a struggling Orioles bullpen, which allowed four late runs to give the Red Sox a 6-2 win in front of an announced 21,209.
In their past five games, Orioles relievers have given up 19 runs in 17 innings -- a 10.06 ERA. The bullpen hasn't had consecutive scoreless outings since April 3-4.
That simply couldn't work when going against Lester, who is 14-0 against the Orioles in 17 career starts and 7-0 at Camden Yards. Lester (3-1) allowed just four hits, three walks and two runs in eight innings, dropping his season ERA to 2.52 and his career ERA versus the Orioles to 2.33.
"The bottom line is we didn't get many hits tonight, regardless of what they did or didn't do, and you know runs are going to be at a premium," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
Despite Lester's looming presence, the Orioles and Red Sox were tied at 2 heading into the seventh, thanks to a solo homer by Vladimir Guerrero, a long-awaited run-scoring hit by Derrek Lee and a solid performance by starter Brad Bergesen.
Then the game -- and the Orioles' chances at a series sweep and winning homestand -- crumbled in the seventh and eighth innings.
Orioles reliever Jim Johnson (1-1) entered to start the seventh and surrendered a double to the first batter he faced, struggling left fielder Carl Crawford, who had been hitless in his first 10 at-bats of the series.
Johnson, who had allowed just three earned runs in eight outings this month, almost escaped the jam, getting two groundouts before Dustin Pedroia hit a two-out, 0-2 dribbler onto the infield grass. Third baseman Mark Reynolds couldn't make a difficult, barehanded play, and the speedy Crawford raced home to break the tie.
"I thought it was a pretty good pitch," Johnson said. "[Pedroia] does that a lot, it seems like. He's a tough out. Give him credit."
Johnson started the eighth with a four-pitch walk to Kevin Youkilis, and Showalter brought in left-hander Michael Gonzalez, who had allowed runs in five of his first six appearances, to face lefties David Ortiz and J.D. Drew.
Ortiz singled to center, and Mike Cameron, pinch hitting for Drew, walked to load the bases. Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a liner up the middle to score the fourth run. Gonzalez struck out Crawford, and Jason Berken induced a pop-up before Jacoby Ellsbury hit a two-run single to make the game 6-2.
Gonzalez was charged with two more runs in one-third of an inning, pushing his ERA to 13.50. But the lefty, who consistently hit 94 and 95 mph on the stadium radar gun, said he was encouraged by how strong, mentally and physically, he felt on the mound.
"I feel bad about giving up that run of J.J.'s. I didn't want to give up [Johnson's]run. That's what I feel bad about," Gonzalez said. "The results, seriously, I don't feel bad or frustrated whatsoever.
I felt really good today. I felt really comfortable, and it just didn't go my way. But I will fight like this all day. I'll go every day to work like that, feeling the way I felt today. No frustration whatsoever."
Showalter said he also was encouraged by Gonzalez's performance Thursday compared with earlier this year. It was the lefty's first outing since giving up a run April 21.
"I thought Gonzo probably had the best stuff he's had this year, as far as just quality stuff," Showalter said. "Because he's having some struggles here and there, it's tough to get him out there enough to get it under control like we know he's capable of. It's good to see his stuff get better tonight. If he keeps bringing that type of stuff, he'll have some success."
The results, however, showed that the bullpen again failed to shut the door and has had just three scoreless outings in its past 19 games after two in its first four contests of the year.
Lester wasn't dominant -- he struck out five batters -- but he was rarely in trouble. Only twice did the Orioles have two runners on base simultaneously. His 14 straight wins against the Orioles tie him for the Red Sox franchise record with Tom Brewer (1954-1957 versus the Philadelphia/Kansas City Athletics) for longest victory streak against one opponent.
The Orioles' best scoring opportunity came in the first, when they picked up a run using a combination of overdue sources: Brian Roberts' legs and Lee's bat.
Roberts led off the inning with a walk and moved to second on Nick Markakis' single. Roberts stole third, just his second steal and attempt this year. It was the Orioles' fifth steal in 23 games this season and first since April 7.
Lee followed with a single to left, which scored Roberts. It was Lee's third RBI of the season in his 86th at-bat. His previous RBI had come April 6, when he hit a two-run homer.