TORONTO ——Tommy Hunter's words carried considerable concern. Following the Orioles right-hander's shortest outing of this young season Monday night against a Blue Jays lineup that used his fastball for batting practice, Hunter had few answers.
He entered the spring competing for the team's Opening Day starter spot. Now he might be pitching his way out of the Orioles' starting rotation. When it comes to Hunter's 2012 season, his glaring numbers don't lie.
In Monday's series-opening 6-2 loss to Toronto at the Rogers Centre, Hunter reached rock bottom with his shortest start in nearly 22 months, and the shortest by an Orioles starter this season, in front of an announced crowd of 16,575.
The 25-year-old Hunter lasted just three innings, allowing nine hits and six runs — including a pair of two-run homers by Edwin Encarnacion and Kelly Johnson — with the Blue Jays lineup pelting each of Hunter's pitches for base hits. His curveballs came back at him. A fastball down was planted into the left-field stands. His inside cutters didn't cut. His fastballs inside to left-handed hitters found too much of the plate.
“It's very frustrating, especially when they hit every single pitch I threw tonight pretty much,” Hunter said. “When that happens, professional hitters, they take advantage of it pretty quick.”
It made for an early exit for Hunter — his shortest start since Aug. 17, 2010 — and an insurmountable deficit for the Orioles, whose offense has suddenly become grounded just in time for a critical three-city, nine-game road trip, all of the games against American League East opponents.
In Hunter's last two starts, he's allowed 11 runs (10 earned) in nine innings. On the season, he's yielded 13 home runs, tied for second most in the majors, including six in two starts here at the Rogers Centre.
“I'm aware of it,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “So is he. It doesn't work. He knows that.”
“It's a hell of a stretch,” Hunter said. “It's a really rough stretch. As soon as I can figure out how to throw a fastball down in the zone, things are going to change, but it's a battle right now. I'm struggling. But it's one of those things. I've got to find it or somebody else going to do it.”
Despite their sixth loss in their past eight games, the Orioles (29-20) clung to a share of first place in the division by default — the Tampa Bay Rays lost to the Chicago White Sox. But in a division where all five teams are now separated by 4 ½ games in the standings, this road trip could make or break the Orioles.
The Orioles' offense didn't help, handcuffed by Blue Jays starter Drew Hutchison, who threw seven shutout innings and allowed just three hits and striking out nine while walking three. Hutchison, who entered the night with a 5.73 ERA, was getting the low fastball call early, and dictated that pitch to Orioles hitters throughout the night.
Over their past three games — all Baltimore losses — the Orioles have scored just 2.3 runs a game.
“He was hitting the corners,” designated hitter Mark Reynolds said of Hutchison. “I think when he did make mistakes, we didn't capitalize on them and he was just spotting up real well. It's tough putting a big inning together when you're living away or living in and hitting your spots.”
Hutchison was far from flawless against the Orioles. Just 65 of his 114 pitches were strikes. And the Orioles had a chance to break through against Hutchison trailing 2-0 in the third inning.
The Orioles had runners at first and second with no outs when first baseman Chris Davis was called out for going outside the base paths during a rundown between second and third. Baltimore managed to load the bases later than inning — with every base runner reaching on a walk — but Nick Markakis grounded out to Hutchison to end the inning.
Hunter struggled from the beginning. The Blue Jays (25-24) went up 1-0 two batters in after a Johnson double and a Colby Rasmus RBI single, then scored another run in the second on Johnson's RBI ground out.
A costly error to open the third inning burned the Orioles. With the infield shifted toward left field playing slugger Jose Bautista to pull, Davis was too far from first and reached the bag at the same time as the throw, and was unable to come up with J.J. Hardy's throw on a routing ball to shortstop.
Encarnacion then lined a 1-1 low fastball from Hunter into the left-field stands for his 16th homer of the season to give the Blue Jays a 4-0 lead.
“That's a play that's got to be made on my end,” Davis said of the error. “It's little things like that. They played well tonight, but we gave them plenty of opportunities to win that game.”
Johnson, who had three extra-base hits on the night, added his own two-run shot two batters into the fourth, chasing Hunter from the game after jolting a 2-1 fastball to straight-away center field.
“What's frustrating is that you can sit down on a work day and he can throw as good as anybody,” Showalter said of Hunter. “He's just having trouble carrying it over into the game. I can go through all of them, fastball command. There's just such a fine margin. … Guys are going to make you pay for those.”
The Orioles' only scoring came in the ninth off Jays closer Francisco Cordero. Adam Jones extended his career-high hitting streak to 19 games, the longest in the majors this season, which was followed by a Matt Wieters base hit.
Wilson Betemit drove in the Orioles' first run with a single to center, and two batters later, Reynolds' double high off the center-field wall — just a few feet from being a three-run homer — plated Wieters to make it 6-2. But Robert Andino lined out to second against reliever Casey Janssen, and pinch hitter Nick Johnson grounded out to first to end the game.
As for Hunter, his next victory could come today, when the Orioles make a corresponding 25-man roster move by activating outfielder Endy Chavez from the disabled list. Asked if Hunter could be demoted, Showalter was non-committal.
“It is what it is,” Hunter said. “That's not anything I have control over. The only thing I can control is throwing the ball down in the zone and if you don't do that, stuff happens.”