By NOEY KUPCHAN
(AP) — The Baltimore Orioles still own a comfortable lead in the AL East, but they haven’t been playing their best of late.
The Orioles try to avoid back-to-back home losses for the first time in two months Thursday night as they close a four-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays.
After getting swept by the lowly Cubs over the weekend, Baltimore (75-56) returned home to take the first two in this series. However, the Orioles saw their woes resume with Wednesday’s 3-1 defeat.
Chris Davis hit his 23rd homer for one of Baltimore’s two hits. The Orioles, batting .198 during the 2-4 stretch, haven’t suffered consecutive defeats at Camden Yards since June 28 and 29 against the Rays.
Despite its recent play, Baltimore is six games ahead of New York for the division lead.
Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce and Wil Myers each drove in a run Wednesday, lifting Tampa Bay (65-68) to its fourth win in 11 games. The Rays are 5-10 against the Orioles this year.
Jeremy Hellickson (1-2, 2.61 ERA) is set to make his eighth start for Tampa Bay since returning from offseason elbow surgery. The right-hander yielded two runs over 6 1-3 innings and was in line for the win before the bullpen blew the lead in Saturday’s 5-4, 10-inning loss at Toronto.
Hellickson struck out a season-high eight behind an impressive curveball.
“It’s nice to have a putaway pitch,” he told MLB’s official website. “The one I have been throwing early has been pretty consistent, but the two-strike one was a lot better.”
Hellickson went 2-1 despite posting a 6.29 ERA in four starts against the Orioles last year. Davis is 11 for 27 with five extra-base hits in their matchups and Adam Jones is 14 for 42 with four homers.
“I don’t think there’s a team better built for their ballpark than these guys,” said Hellickson, who had a 9.00 ERA in two outings in Baltimore last season. “They’re a powerful team.”
Davis also went deep in Monday’s opener and has four homers over an eight-game stretch at home. However, he’s hitting .122 in his last 16 there.
Bud Norris (11-8, 3.91) had won three consecutive starts for Baltimore before losing 7-2 to the Cubs on Saturday. The right-hander was tagged for four runs over two innings as his outing was cut short following a lengthy rain delay.
Norris could bounce back at home, where he’s 5-2 with a 2.86 ERA. He gave up two runs and a season-high four walks over 5 2-3 innings while not receiving a decision in a 4-3 win at Tampa Bay on May 7.
James Loney is 9 for 18 with two doubles against Norris, but Evan Longoria and Myers are a combined 2 for 16. Zobrist has also struggled, homering for his only hit in 10 at-bats.
Longoria went 3 for 4 on Wednesday and returned to third base after serving as the designated hitter over the previous two days due to forearm tightness.
“I don’t think you can say he’s 100 percent, but he’s a lot better,” manager Joe Maddon said.
Longoria is batting .341 with five extra-base hits – two homers – and 10 RBIs over his last nine road games.
Updated August 27, 2014
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