BALTIMORE -- The Orioles have insisted the past few weeks that there is plenty of baseball left, time yet to start clicking on all cylinders and make a serious push for the postseason. But in watching Baltimore lose three of four games to the New York Yankees this week, it's becoming increasingly tough to envision.
An O's team that has won more than four consecutive games just once this season continues to plod along at a frustrating .500 pace, with Thursday's 6-5 loss to the Yankees dropping them to 4-4 on the homestand and 1 1/2 games back of New York in the American League Wild Card chase. Tampa Bay, which owns the second Wild Card spot as it stands right now, won its game to move 2 1/2 games ahead of the listless O's, who are 24-26 since the All-Star break.
"This is where everybody steps up their game -- or we go home," said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts after watching Danny Valencia's three-run, game-tying homer in the eighth inning negated by closer Jim Johnson's throwing error and wild pitch in the ninth. "That is kind of the bottom line."
The Orioles (77-69) -- who won four of their first five games on the homestand -- are in desperate search of a spark as they head to Toronto to open a three-city, 10-game road trip that could decide their season. With 16 games remaining, the Orioles are tied with Kansas City for fifth in the Wild Card chase, hanging on despite an erratic offense and uneven pitching, in both their rotation and bullpen.
"Every loss is frustrating," Johnson said of dropping three of four and the season series, 10-9, to the Yankees. "We've been in them and haven't gotten the big pitch or the big hit or whatever it needs to be.
"We're running out of time, but we need to start putting a couple key pieces together."
Johnson, on in a tie game, allowed a leadoff single to Brendan Ryan, and the Yankees put a pair of men on after Johnson airmailed the throw to second base on Chris Stewart's bunt. Curtis Granderson bunted the runners over, and Johnson's wild pitch -- with Alex Rodriguez batting -- allowed the Yankees to take the lead and the Orioles' bullpen to surrender pivotal late-game runs for the third consecutive game.
"I think everybody had a lot of adrenaline there," manager Buck Showalter said of Johnson's wildness. "There's a lot of guys with not many wild pitches on our staff because of [catcher] Matt Wieters. That ball's a little too short for him. If Matt can't block it, it can't be blocked."
Johnson wasn't the only one to blame in Baltimore's latest defeat, with starter Wei-Yin Chen struggling with his command and putting his club in an early four-run deficit. Chen, who has been inconsistent as of late, allowed a two-run homer to Mark Reynolds in the second, and after striking out the side, ran into another jam the following frame. He issued a pair of third-inning walks, sandwiched in between Alfonso Soriano's double, to load the bases and allow Vernon Wells to shoot a ball into left field to push the Yankees' lead to four.
"I should do a better job for the first three innings," Chen said through his interpreter. "I tried to get my rhythm and tempo and timing back in my delivery. It was hard for me. The Yankees swung the bat well, but our guys played good defense, which is why I had an opportunity to pitch in the seventh."
The lefty did rebound after that, retiring 13 consecutive batters before Granderson took him deep one out into the seventh to end Chen's night. Righty Josh Stinson followed with 1 2/3 scoreless innings to keep the game from getting out of reach before handing the ball over to Johnson.
An erratic Orioles lineup continued to live and die by the homer, with Valencia's three-run, two-out shot off David Robertson nearly enough to overcome their woes. Baltimore got its second run on Nick Markakis' leadoff homer in the seventh, which chased reliever David Huff, and Manny Machado was robbed of a homer to start the eighth on a fantastic grab by Soriano in left field.
But the club's pitching, combined with its inability to get to struggling starter Phil Hughes -- who allowed one run -- was too much.
"You're still just X amount of games out," Orioles left fielder Nate McLouth said of turning things around. "It doesn't matter who's in front of you. We've got a big series with Tampa Bay later in the road trip. Certainly, we'd rather be in a different position, but we've got 16 games left and see what we can get."
Asked about the looming road trip showing his team's character, Showalter said, "I think your resolve is proven by coming back and tying the game up at 5 after Granderson hit the home run. Resolve is not an issue here with these guys."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.