It was the player the Orioles, more times than not, would want to have at the plate in a run-scoring situation. It was certainly the player the crowd at Camden Yards wanted at the plate in that situation, with an “Ad-ley” chant that rang around the ballpark.

But for Baltimore, at least on Monday against the Tampa Bay Rays, that combination didn’t work. Adley Rutschman, without a hit in his last 18 at-bats, waved and missed at a slider well below the zone from left-hander Colin Poche to strand another two runners on base.

Baltimore Orioles designated hitter Adley Rutschman (35) is chased by Tampa Bay Rays catcher Francisco Mejía (21) during a game in Baltimore on Monday, May 8. The Rays and Orioles played the first game of a series on Monday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The Orioles find themselves at an interesting junction. They are playing the best teams in baseball in consecutive series, first in Atlanta against the Braves and now at home against the Rays. They’re playing competitively, too, even in Monday’s 3-0 loss to the Rays.

The opportunities to prove they belong in the same tier as these teams have passed by unclaimed, though. On Monday, Rutschman was just one of several to stumble with runners in scoring position. In Baltimore’s last three losses, all against baseball’s best, the lineup is hitting 2-for-29 in those situations with 11 strikeouts mixed in.

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That’s not a winning formula, and it led the Orioles (22-13) to their second shutout of the season and their first three-game losing streak.

“This isn’t a three-game losing streak where we’ve shot ourselves in the foot and we haven’t played well and we’ve given away two of the three games or all three,” right-hander Kyle Gibson said. “We’ve been in all three of them, and we’ve been one swing away from winning each game. So, we feel really good about where we’re at. We’re playing really good baseball and if we keep doing this, over a long stretch, we’re going to be right where we want at the end.”

The two losses in Atlanta to close out that series were both one-run defeats, with a late two-run homer on Saturday putting the Braves ahead before a 12th-inning walk-off on Sunday. Gibson pointed out that the Orioles scored more runs in that series than Atlanta, and for “probably 28 of the 30 innings,” he figures Baltimore was the better team.

Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Kyle Gibson (48) pitches in a game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Baltimore on Monday, May 8. The Rays and Orioles played the first game of a series on Monday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

But in these matchups with top teams, the little things matter. The little things, the last three games, have been a lack of hitting with runners in scoring position.

It wasn’t as though Baltimore didn’t have chances against left-hander Shane McClanahan, one of the premier starting pitchers in the league. He allowed four hits and four walks but worked out of those issues to strike out seven in six scoreless frames.

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With two runners on in the fourth, a double play helped end a threat. Anthony Santander was a matter of feet from a homer off McClanahan in the sixth inning and instead settled for the 100th double of his career. The ball, which leaped off his bat at 108.1 mph, would’ve been a homer in all 29 other ballparks but cascaded off the left field wall at Camden Yards. Subsequently, Santander was stranded.

Baltimore Orioles right fielder Anthony Santander (25) swings at a pitch in a game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Baltimore on Monday, May 8. The Rays and Orioles played the first game of a series on Monday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“The Orioles are playing great baseball right now. They’re a fun team to watch,” McClanahan said. “That’s a fun team to play. You always want to be the best, but you’ve got to play the best.”

And it wasn’t as though Baltimore’s pitching staff didn’t keep its offense in the game, either.

Gibson, signed this offseason to be this sort of steadying presence, compiled what could be the best start of his Orioles career thus far — he’s allowed fewer runs before, but this came against the best team in baseball, a team that entered with the most home runs and RBIs across the majors.

Gibson wasn’t dominant. But he allowed just two runs and recorded Baltimore’s eighth quality start in 35 games. Four of those eight have come from Gibson, making him the sort of stout presence on the mound a young rotation needs.

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Particularly with the heavy bullpen usage of late, six innings from Gibson were welcome. And he might’ve gone deeper had Luke Raley not lined a soft single off him to lead off the seventh, ending his night.

“He threw the ball great,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Really good sinker, pitched out of some trouble there early. Really awesome job getting into the seventh inning for us on a night after a 12-inning game and just really competed well. Unfortunately, that run in the seventh is his, but I thought he threw the ball outstanding.”

Right-hander Bryan Baker came out of the bullpen and promptly walked two and allowed a sacrifice fly, charging Gibson with a second run. Then left-hander Keegan Akin allowed a solo homer in the ninth to Raley, crafting a harder road back for an offense that hadn’t managed much.

Ramón Urías briefly gave the Orioles life with a two-out single in the final inning, but then he slowed as he approached first base and ultimately limped off to the clubhouse with a left hamstring strain. Gunnar Henderson struck out swinging to end the game.

Baltimore Orioles pinch hitter Gunnar Henderson (2) angrily reacts to being the final strikeout of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays in Baltimore on Monday, May 8. The Rays and Orioles played the first game of a series on Monday. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The “Ad-ley” chants of the seventh evaporated with Rutschman’s swing and miss, part of an 0-for-18 slump that Hyde dismissed as a small sample in the 600-some at-bats he’ll have this season. The stands cleared out. Baltimore needed a big hit — even a small one at the right time would’ve been enough. Instead, they’re slumping as a whole, and that leaves enough of a gap between them and baseball’s best clubs.

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“It’s the little things that end up making what is a three-run game — really close — feel like it wasn’t close,” Gibson said. “But it was a close game. They executed when they needed to on offense and got an insurance run there late, and we just couldn’t get a hit when we needed to. But those are going to fall. Those hits are going to come and hopefully tomorrow we’ll be on the right side of it.”

andy.kostka@thebaltimorebanner.com

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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