MINNEAPOLIS -- Following Thursday's emphatic doubleheader sweep, the Orioles opened a six-game road trip with one of their more uplifting wins, in Friday's dominant outing from new O's starter Ubaldo Jimenez. But since their brief return to the top of the American League East, it's been all downhill.
Baltimore turned in a pair of listless starts and watched a lethargic offense -- kept alive only by Nelson Cruz -- struggle against the AL's second-lowest-ranked pitching staff again Sunday in a disappointing 5-2 loss in the rubber match vs. the Twins. The defeat saw manager Buck Showalter use five pitchers after right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, as the team's bullpen continues to pick up innings at an alarming clip.
"I'm not going to go [talking about making changes]," Showalter said of the disturbing early-season trend that has already forced the team to make several adjustments to the 'pen. "We've just got to be better. We've got to figure it out. ... I'm looking at what we've got, and they're capable. It's just that we haven't been as consistent as we need to be."
Gonzalez, who is averaging slightly more than five innings a game through six starts, gave up three earned runs and exited after loading the bases with two outs in the fifth. At 60 pitches through four innings, Gonzalez walked four in his final frame, including a bases-loaded pass to Kurt Suzuki that ended his afternoon in favor of lefty Troy Patton.
"I don't even know what happened," Gonzalez said of his rough fifth inning. "I thought I was throwing the ball well and they were just being patient. The first four innings, they were being aggressive and it's crazy to be in that situation, throwing a lot of balls and walking guys. That's not me."
It marked the second time this season that Gonzalez has failed to get out of the fifth inning and the righty, who also allowed six hits, was actually let off the hook by a Twins lineup that went 1-for-8 off him with runners in scoring position. Over their past five games, the Orioles have had just one starter, Jimenez, go more than 5 1/3 innings as the team continues to tax its 'pen in the early part of the season.
"It's been a challenge for us, because I've been trying to protect our bullpen pieces, but we continue to get some short starts," Showalter said. "I'm not going to put those guys in harm's way. I know Zach [Britton] probably could have finished, but I'm trying to save the bullets. Fortunately we have a day off, but we're going to go through a period here after the off-day where those types of things are going to catch up with you. You just can't have it."
The lineup didn't do much the past two days to take any pressure off the pitching. An O's offense that scored one run in a 17-inning stretch finally broke through on Twins starter Phil Hughes in the sixth. Or, more aptly put, Cruz did. The Orioles slugger, responsible for their last pair of runs with Friday's sixth-inning homer, went deep again to cut the deficit to two.
Cruz sent Hughes' 1-0 cutter off the third deck, traveling an estimated 416 feet, to extend his team lead in homers to nine. The long ball also drove in Manny Machado, who singled, and gives Cruz an impressive 29 RBIs as he continues to lift an Orioles lineup missing Chris Davis.
But that was all the Orioles would get as they stranded the bases loaded in the seventh and put a pair on in the ninth with nothing to show for it.
"I certainly feel like I'm throwing the ball better than I was at the beginning of the year," said Hughes, who has posted three consecutive quality starts. "I can still be better, but I'd like to keep it going."
The O's finally chased Hughes from the game in favor of reliever Anthony Swarzak after a pair of one-out seventh-inning singles from J.J. Hardy and Delmon Young. Rookie Jonathan Schoop worked a two-out walk to bring on Caleb Thielbar against Nick Markakis, who had extended his hitting streak to 12 with a first-inning single. Markakis hit a sharp comebacker to the mound, but Thielbar got a glove on it and was able to make the play to keep the Orioles from scoring.
The Twins extended their lead back to three with a pair of runs off O's reliever Ryan Webb in the seventh inning, and Showalter lost his challenge in the process.
After a one-out double, Webb intentionally walked Jason Kubel and Suzuki made him pay, doubling past the glove of a running Cruz in left field. Chris Colabello crossed the plate and Hardy fired home in an attempt to get Kubel, who was ruled to have slid in before Matt Wieters applied the tag. Showalter came out to argue the play and, after a 58-second review, the call was confirmed.
"It can go both ways," Markakis said. "When we are hitting the ball and scoring runs and not pitching well, it looks bad. And when we are not scoring runs, it looks bad. That's part of being a team and getting on the same page and doing things the right way.
"Teams are going to go through their struggles. Everybody is going to do it. I wouldn't say we are struggling right now, we just didn't have a series like we wanted to. And we just got to put it past us."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.