The Orioles' 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on an ugly, rainy, sloppy night Friday at Camden Yards provided a crystal-clear example of what separates successful veteran pitchers from inexperienced ones that are seemingly headed toward that path.
Tampa Bay's 29-year-old right-hander James Shields threw 103 pitches, lasted 71/3 innings and turned over a lead to his bullpen to get five outs and secure his team's ninth win in 12 games.
Meanwhile, 23-year-old Orioles lefty Zach Britton threw eight fewer pitches, made it through 51/3 innings and forced an increasingly taxed bullpen to pitch the rest of the night.
"They're a hot team -- I need to keep [the Orioles] in the game and especially log some innings and save the bullpen," said Britton (5-2), who had his three-game winning streak snapped in the shortest outing of his brief big league career. "As starters, we haven't gone deep in games lately, so my job was to go deep in the game. I didn't do that at all."
Shields, once a promising rookie who took his lumps in 2006, has developed into the kind of pitcher that the Orioles hope the members of their young staff will become: someone who routinely logs 200 innings each season.
"There's a reason he's been pitching well for them for a long time with 200 innings a year. It shouldn't surprise anybody that he goes deep into games," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "That's what they've been doing for the majority of their games this season. And that's why they're going to have success if they continue to do that."
The Orioles (14-17) have now dropped four of their last five games, with the offense scoring just eight runs in those four losses. This time, they were shut down by Shields (3-1), who entered with a 2.14 ERA and proceeded to pitch shutout ball into the sixth before giving up Derrek Lee's solo homer, the only run he would allow.
The Orioles managed just five total hits off Shields; reliever Joel Peralta, who gave up a RBI double to Luke Scott in the ninth; and Brandon Gomes, who retired Adam Jones on a foul pop to end the three-hour, 11-minute marathon in front of an announced 20,694.
"It's hitting. It's not the easiest thing to do. We get a little frustrated," Jones said. "You can't get down on yourselves. Keep going out there. Keep swinging the bats. Play as a team and feed off the guy in front of you."
Pitching through a steady rain and the occasional flicker of lightning in the threatening skies above, Britton had just one bad inning, a three-run second in which he was victimized by a player making his big league debut. Evan Longoria led off the second with a double and B.J. Upton doubled him home to give the Rays a 1-0 lead. That brought 25-year-old outfielder Brandon Guyer to the plate.
Guyer, who is from Herndon, Va., starred at Virginia and lives in Rockville, launched the fifth pitch he saw as a big leaguer over the left-center wall. He's the first Ray to homer in the first at-bat of his big league debut, and he did it in front of about 20 friends and family members.
On April 3, Britton was the one debuting in the big leagues against Tampa Bay, allowing just one run in six innings for his first win. He's continued to get solid results, but on Friday he was done in by a driving rainstorm and a young pitcher's bane: the high pitch count.
Britton, who was pulled with one out in the sixth, went to a three-ball count to eight of the 21 batters he faced.
"It's going to happen once I face these guys more. I think I'll get a lot more confidence to throw strikes," said Britton, who has gone more than six innings in one of his seven starts this season. "Not that I don't have confidence, but I'm still thinking about being too perfect rather than just throw the ball over the plate."
Inefficiency with his pitches has been the one black mark for Britton so far this season. Still, his pitching line -- four hits, one walk, three runs and four strikeouts -- was solid on a night in which he continually threw wet, slick baseballs and his infielders played in a veritable swamp behind him.
"There are things you have to deal with," Britton said. "Shields, obviously, [the weather] didn't bother him very much."
Britton's early exit pushed the Orioles' bullpen for the second consecutive game. Orioles relievers now have pitched eight innings in the past two games, which included starter Chris Tillman's outing Thursday in Kansas City that lasted just 32/3 innings.
The Orioles used four relievers Friday, with Jeremy Accardo allowing a run in the eighth -- a RBI single to Casey Kotchman -- and Koji Uehara serving up a two-run homer to Johnny Damon in the ninth.
It was the league-worst 42nd home run yielded by the Orioles this season and an astronomical 22 by the bullpen. The club's relievers now have a 6.20 ERA in their past 17 contests.
Yet the game was already lost thanks to Shields' performance and another lackluster effort from an offense that seems to step backward just as it looks to be getting out of an early-season funk.
"I am concerned that we're not playing to our capabilities offensively and I have a lot of confidence that that will change," Showalter said. "We didn't put up much resistance tonight."