ST. PETERSBURG -- On the heels of a dazzling outing by Orioles lefty Brian Matusz, which snapped a season-high six-game losing streak, Baltimore had a fresh start and a starter -- in 26-year-old Jake Arrieta -- that looked poised to pick up where Matusz left off.
Arrieta retired the first nine Rays he faced on Sunday afternoon and was on total cruise control, with just 36 pitches thrown, when he took the hill in the fourth. But it all unraveled over the next five outs, as Arrieta continued what has been a mystifying six-start stretch, exiting after 4 2/3 innings and watching a once-dominant outing crumble and his team sputter to an 8-4 loss to Tampa Bay.
The Orioles, who have lost nine of 12, dropped back out of first place in a sloppy contest that featured poor situational hitting, three errors and less-than-stingy relief pitching. But it was Arrieta who left the most concerning impression of the afternoon, as the right-hander showed no signs of coming out of his recent funk. He sat dazed in front of his locker, shoulders hunched over, after speaking with the media about his latest disappointment.
"I'm still searching for it, still searching for that consistency every time I go out," said Arrieta, who has seen several outings derailed mid-start and has struggled to pitch out of the stretch for the past month. "Right now, it's not there, and I've got to put that behind me and continue to move forward. Because if I don't, it's going to get to me and it could continue to snowball."
Whether Arrieta, who is 0-5 with a 7.96 ERA in his last half-dozen starts, will get the chance to turn it around in Baltimore remains to be seen. While the Orioles' starters are all struggling, there's no clear-cut solution in Triple-A.
Asked if Arrieta would make his next scheduled start, manager Buck Showalter was noncommittal.
"We just got through this game here, and we've got off-days," Showalter said. "We'll see what's best for Jake and the Baltimore Orioles. But that's the plan right now."
Arrieta, whose backslide started after he threw eight scoreless innings against the Yankees on May 2, is well aware that he is on thin ice. The O's Opening Day starter, Arrieta has walked 28 batters in his last 31 2/3 innings, and command again proved to be his demise. He had four three-ball counts in a two-run fifth inning that resulted in three walks and a two-run double.
"I think he probably is getting frustrated because he knows what kind of ability he has," said catcher Matt Wieters, who went 3-for-4 with a homer and two RBIs.
"He had his breaking ball rolling early and was able to ... mix and match," Wieters said, "And then his last two innings, [he] just couldn't quite [get] the feeling for the breaking ball."
Arrieta exited two outs into the fifth inning after allowing four runs on two hits and four walks in an 83-pitch outing in which he only threw 41 strikes. A fierce competitor and one of the hardest workers on the team, Arrieta was visibly upset -- not with the question that he could be optioned to the Minors, but that he has pitched poorly enough to even make that a possibility.
"I'm struggling -- there's no doubt about it," Arrieta said. "But I've had several games this year where it's obvious that I can pitch consistently at this level. So I think the staff is probably frustrated because they see that type of stuff and then they see three outings where I'm out in the fifth inning. I feel the frustration, and I know they do, as well.
"I take it upon myself, and I'm going to take it upon myself, to make the adjustment and continue to pitch well for this team. As frustrating as it is to have seven losses, we're a game out of first place. So that's rewarding in the sense that, if I quickly turn this around, it's going to be very good for our ballclub. So that's the way I look at it."
The Orioles' bullpen, which has been outstanding the first eight weeks of the season, couldn't keep it close after Arrieta's exit. Dana Eveland allowed two runs and Luis Ayala gave up a run to give a struggling Rays lineup more than seven runs scored for the second time in 17 games.
The O's offense, which hasn't had much to feel good about lately, scored two runs on solo homers by Wieters -- his first as a right-handed hitter this season -- and Mark Reynolds.
Reynolds also had a two-out RBI single to score Endy Chavez for an unearned run off Rays starter Matt Moore in the fifth. Moore allowed seven hits and three walks over six innings, but was able to limit the damage and hold the O's to two runs (one earned).
Arrieta wasn't as effective, and after a dominant three innings, the wheels started to come off in a sloppy fourth. In that frame, he issued a leadoff walk to Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton's single put pair of runners on that advanced on Arrieta's wild pitch. Matt Joyce's sacrifice fly -- which easily scored Pena from third -- led to a second run when center fielder Adam Jones' throw sailed wide of Steve Tolleson at third base. The throw, which was not backed up by Arrieta, skipped off the visitors' dugout instead, allowing Upton to score.
The Rays pushed a pair of runs across in the fifth, using Arrieta's three walks to load the bases before Upton smoked a ball past Tolleson. The utility player, making his eighth start at third this year, struggled defensively -- committing an error in the sixth that led to Jose Molina's run.
"That's what good teams do," Upton said. "When teams make mistakes and errors, you've got to be able to capitalize on them. That's what we did today."
The O's were left with their fourth consecutive series loss and a 1-5 record on a three-city, nine-game road trip that shifts to Boston on Tuesday.
"You play 162 of these things, and this is just six, seven games out of 162," Reynolds said of the tough stretch. "It's not really that big of a deal when you think about it. We're going to get out of here, go to Boston for a day off [on Monday]. Go and regroup, and hopefully play some good baseball up there."
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.