BALTIMORE (AP) — The Baltimore Orioles were already assured a series victory and sole possession of first place, so no one would have blamed them if they coasted to the finish after falling behind Tampa Bay by six runs.
Instead, Baltimore mounted a comeback bid that finally ended with the winning run at second base in the ninth inning.
Although the Orioles dropped a 9-8 decision Sunday, they made a significant statement in defeat.
“This team never gives up,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “We had a chance in the ninth and just didn’t come through. It would have been a nice game to win, but at the same time you know this team is going to keep playing hard and we’re not out of any game. That’s how we feel in this clubhouse.”
Baltimore trailed 7-1 in the sixth, 9-6 in the eighth and 9-7 before nearly pulling out the game in the ninth.
“I don’t think it surprises anybody, especially me,” manager Buck Showalter said. “There’s a good air about the dugout from the first inning on. It’s been that way since opening day. They feel like as a group they can overcome some things.”
Despite the loss, the Orioles took two of three against the Rays and hold a one-game lead in the AL East.
“You can’t hang your heads,” said Nick Markakis, who had three RBIs. “It’s a good game all around.”
Elliot Johnson and Ben Zobrist homered for the Rays, who snapped a three-game skid. Carlos Pena ended an extended slump with two doubles and two RBIs.
It was 9-8 in the ninth when Fernando Rodney got Wieters to ground out with runners on second and third with two outs. Third baseman Sean Rodriguez backhanded the final grounder while retreating and fired a one-hopper to first to get Wieters by a step.
“We made a run at the end there,” Markakis said, “and if Pena doesn’t catch that ball there, we may possibly win that game.”
Rodney got his 10th save in 10 tries in a game that earlier appeared was going to be blowout.
“When I ran out on the field I was high-fiving everybody, yelling, ‘We had it all the way’,” manager Joe Maddon said with a slight grin.
Zobrist had three RBIs and Johnson scored three runs and drove in two. Pena was 3 for 37 with 14 strikeouts in May before hitting a third-inning double and adding a two-run double in the fourth to make it 7-1.
After Baltimore closed to 7-6 in the seventh, Johnson and Zobrist hit successive homers off Troy Patton in the eighth for a 9-6 lead. The nine runs were the most scored by the Rays since April 19, and they needed every one of them.
Wieters and Nick Johnson homered for the Orioles, who were denied their first three-game home sweep of Tampa Bay since 2007.
Tampa Bay starter James Shields (6-1) gave up six runs, four earned, and seven hits in 6 1/3 innings. The right-hander is 9-5 lifetime against Baltimore, including 6-1 at Camden Yards.
Shields retired eight straight batters before J.J. Hardy doubled in the sixth. Markakis followed with an RBI double and Wieters hit his eighth homer to make it 7-4.
“I wish I could have gotten Wieters out right there,” Shields said. “That was a really big moment in the game.”
A throwing error by Tampa Bay second baseman Will Rhymes preceded a two-run double by Markakis in the seventh.
After Elliot Johnson and Zobrist connected in the top of the eighth, Nick Johnson hit a solo shot in the bottom half, his second homer in three games off Joel Peralta.
Orioles starter Jake Arrieta (2-4) allowed seven runs and a career-high 10 hits in 3 2/3 innings. The right-hander has yielded 13 earned runs in his last 10 innings and has only one win in seven starts since opening day.
“I think it really comes down to four fastballs that were elevated with guys on base that they were able to put good swings on it,” Arrieta said. “So, really the only thing I take away from it is, just I got to get the ball down.”
After stranding runners at the corners in the first inning, the Rays went up 3-0 in the second when Johnson hit an RBI single and Zobrist followed with a two-run double.
Wieters led off the bottom half with a double and scored on a single by Chris Davis.
In the Tampa Bay third, Rhymes snapped a 0-for-13 drought by bringing home Pena with a two-out single. The Rays went up 7-1 when Matt Joyce singled in a run and Pena delivered a two-out double.
NOTES: Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton struck out four times. Orioles OF Xavier Avery, the team’s second-round pick in the 2005 draft, went 0 for 4 in his major league debut. The Orioles open a two-game series against the Yankees on Monday. RHP Jason Hammel (1-3, 6.69 ERA lifetime against NY) will start for Baltimore. Tampa Bay will send Jeff Niemann to the mound Monday night in Toronto. Baltimore has lost six straight on Mother’s Day.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)