Tampa Bay's Carlos Pena strode to the plate with a man on and the score knotted at 4 in the bottom of the seventh inning. He'd been beaned by a Rocky Cherry pitch just one at-bat prior, and didn't hesitate to swing at the first pitch he saw from Jim Hoey.
The ball went very high, and very far. The baserunners went 'round and right fielder Nick Markakis camped out on the warning track in hopes of making Pena's blast out No. 2 of the inning.
Except ... the ball didn't come down.
It caromed off of the second closest catwalk to the field, and landed somewhere in the second-base vicinity. The bewildered O's defenders threw the ball to third in haste, but Pena calmly jogged right past it, as the umpires signaled the hit was, per the Tropicana Field rules book, a home run.
"I know the ground rules," O's skipper Dave Trembley said, and added that even if Pena's hit hadn't struck the 'B' ring, it would've been a home run. Tropicana Field officials estimated the ball would have traveled about 410 feet had its progress not been impeded.
Pena's franchise-best 35th long ball of the season was followed up in the next inning by teammate Akinori Iwamura's two-run blast that stood for the eventual game-winner in the O's 9-7 defeat at the hands of the Rays.
It marked Baltimore's 12th loss in the last 13 games.
"You have to have ... pitching, defense and timely hitting," Trembley said. "Our pitching wasn't up to par.
"It's usually not one thing that is your downfall, it's a combination of things. But I would say tonight that the pitching was probably a lot more predominant than anything else."
The O's would rally again in the top of the ninth, putting two on for Ramon Hernandez, who took an Al Reyes pitch out of the park via right field to cinch the gap to two runs, but Corey Patterson would strike out swinging to end the game.
"[Hernandez] got a big hit right there," Trembley said. "I would've taken another one of those earlier in the game, when we had a first-and-third situation and didn't score."
The evening started off well enough, when the O's took a 4-0 lead in the third inning by way of three singles, a double, two errors and a sac fly. Baltimore batted around during the frame, and Patterson led the charge with a two-RBI single, giving the embattled O's hope that Monday would be the night to kick their current funk.
The celebration didn't last for long, as O's starter Kurt Birkins quickly relinquished most of the lead in the bottom of the same inning. The lefty scattered five of his six total hits while the Rays crawled back.
"Birkins pitched great in the first two innings, but it seemed like as soon as we scored the first four runs, he changed his whole approach to pitching," Trembley said. "He had the table set for himself, facing No. 8 and 9 [hitters], and he let [the Rays] get off the hook."
Birkins pulled it together -- air-tight, in fact -- after the one rocky inning, but although he came out on the other side with a 4-3 lead, the tides had already begun to turn.
"I still made the pitches that I thought were pretty good pitches, but they just happened to be hitting the ball where we weren't," Birkins said. "All in all, I thought I did all right, I just fell apart there a little in the third."
The Rays would get another on the board in the next inning, Birkins' last, and then save up for a five-run assault over the last two innings to cement the win.
The answer to the problem -- Monday night's problem anyway -- was simple.
"We're not going to win very many ballgames when you pitch like that," Trembley said.
Birkins got a break in the frame when first-base umpire Paul Nauert ruled Carl Crawford out at first base for the inning's first out. Replays clearly showed that Crawford had beaten the throw, and that first baseman Kevin Millar's foot was pulled more than a foot off of the bag. Crawford exploded at Nauert, slammed his helmet into the ground, and was immediately ejected.
Birkins, who was handed the spot start with no promises of permanence, scattered six hits over four innings, walked two, fanned three and yielded four runs.
"I feel all right," he evaluated afterward. "I didn't get hit too hard. I gave up a lot of singles for the most part. I made pitches when I had too, but I just came up short."
Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less