TORONTO -- Following a four-game set in Boston in which three of his starters failed to go six innings, Orioles manager Buck Showalter made it clear that the rotation had to step up and start to go deeper into games.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, it was a familiar scene Tuesday at Rogers Centre as another abbreviated outing brought on the bullpen early, and a trio of pivotal three-run homers saddled Baltimore with a 9-3 loss to the Blue Jays.
Right-hander Evan Meek, who entered the game having thrown 9 1/3 scoreless innings over eight games, served up a three-run shot to Brett Lawrie in the eighth that proved to be the game-winner. But to put the loss squarely on Meek -- or the bullpen in general -- wouldn't be fair, with O's relievers picking up 16 1/3 innings in five games on the road, forcing Baltimore to add lefty T.J. McFarland, who was one of five pitchers used on Tuesday.
"Yeah it bothers me because as starters we want to go as far as we can to keep our bullpen fresh," said Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez, who went 5 2/3 innings. "That just didn't happen tonight, and I wasn't too happy about it."
Meek, who was charged with four runs and exited after striking out Jonathan Diaz, was followed by Josh Stinson, who let the Blue Jays put the game out of reach with Melky Cabrera's three-run shot. Prior to Tuesday's late-game implosion, the O's relievers had been a bright spot for Baltimore, pitching to a 2.78 ERA on the road and constantly picking up innings as the rotation struggles to find its footing.
"I think we're getting guys 0-2 a lot, and we're getting to 3-2. That can't happen," catcher Steve Clevenger said. "When we get 0-2 we have to put the guys away and make pitches, make better quality pitches. That should keep the pitch counts down and get our pitchers further in the game."
While the Orioles are hardly the only team struggling with its rotation -- Toronto's R.A. Dickey recorded one more out than Gonzalez -- there's no immediate fix. Showalter, who wanted to stay away from using three or four relievers, acknowledged maneuvering the 'pen can be a challenge on nights like Tuesday, but said he isn't concerned with the relievers piling up innings.
"Not at eight pitchers. And not if we get an off-day here and there," Showalter said. "I just don't want to put them in harm's way. Sometimes we are rested and haven't pitched well out of the 'pen, too. That's a very convenient excuse if you choose to use it, but our guys won't do that."
Perhaps most puzzling about the starting rotation's performance has been that they've dominated early on. The O's have blown leads of five runs, six runs and three runs in their last three games as the starters seemingly fall apart, forcing an all-too-early call to the bullpen.
"You kind of expect that over the course of a year," Meek said of the heavy workload over the past week. "Guys down there know how the bullpen works. There is going to be times when starters are going deep into games and the bullpen is not going to be used, and there's going to be times where they need to be used early. We all know that. It's just a matter of being consistent, going out there and getting outs. And obviously, today it was a struggle. Just not a good day."
And while Gonzalez didn't get hit around, the right-hander couldn't give the Orioles the innings they badly needed.
Staked to a three-run lead on Nelson Cruz's homer, Gonzalez let Toronto tie it on Edwin Encarnacion's sixth-inning homer. Gonzalez watched the leadoff man Cabrera reach on a ball second baseman Steve Lombardozzi overran and Jose Bautista collect a broken-bat single to put two men on. Encarnacion then made sure the error hurt by sending a 1-1 pitch deep. Two outs later, Gonzalez hit Lawrie to spell the end of his night.
O's starters have now picked up 27 1/3 innings on the team's five-game road trip, pitching to a 4.97 ERA over that span. Gonzalez, who cruised through five scoreless innings to start, was followed by McFarland, who threw a scoreless inning. Ryan Webb threw two pitches for the final out of the seventh before handing the ball off to Meek.
"It's pretty frustrating," Gonzalez said. "We're better than that, as a whole, as a team, and it's going to come around."
"I think it was a little bit of bad luck," Clevenger said of Gonzalez's outing. "He was locating all day. He had all his pitches going for strikes. We just made an error, made one bad pitch and they capitalized on it."
The Orioles offense -- missing J.J. Hardy and Matt Wieters with minor injuries -- stranded the bases loaded in the seventh, missing an opportunity to break the tie as Adam Jones and Clevenger struck out against reliever Brett Cecil. Lombardozzi started the inning off with his second hit of the game, and Nick Markakis' ground-rule double chased Dickey in favor of Neil Wagner, who got Cruz to ground out. Cecil came on and walked Chris Davis -- who has 13 free passes and has now reached base in a career-high 18 straight -- before the pair of punchouts.
The red-hot Cruz put the O's on the board off Dickey, who cruised through five innings -- allowing just two hits by Clevenger -- but again fell apart in the game's second half.
"There's a consistent pattern that's emerging where I feel like I'm an All-Star for the first four or five innings of a ball game," Dickey said. "Then I get to pitches 75 to 100, and it's like I'm a different human being out there. I'm trying to figure out what that's about physically, but there are a lot of positives."
After Lombardozzi's fly ball fell into left field for a leadoff sixth-inning double, Markakis worked a walk and Cruz drove a 1-1 fastball over the left-center-field wall for a three-run shot that marked his fifth consecutive game with at least one RBI. Cruz, who also singled in the ninth, has been one of the team's most consistent hitters and has a team-leading 16 RBIs.
The Orioles went on to load the bases after Cruz's knock, as Dickey walked Clevenger and Ryan Flaherty in between hitting Delmon Young with a pitch. But Jonathan Schoop struck out to keep the O's at three runs.
"It's a big contrast in environments the last four days to today," Showalter said. "We got to try to finish that lead. It's a tough thing to do."
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.