MINNEAPOLIS -- It was Orioles starter Zach Britton's much-anticipated season debut, and a few early jams aside, when the 24-year-old took the mound in the bottom of the fifth inning, Britton still had a three-run lead and a chance to secure the win in his first Major League start in nearly 10 months.
Instead, he failed to record an out. Britton, who struggled with his command throughout Tuesday's start, loaded the bases on a single and a pair of walks -- issuing a career-high six free passes -- en route to becoming the latest young Orioles starter to disappoint.
"That's just absolutely unacceptable," said Britton, who watched from the dugout as the lead -- and the game's momentum -- slipped away and helped pave the way for Baltimore's 6-4 loss to the Twins. "There just no way [those walks] should happen."
The loss is the sliding Orioles' sixth in their last seven games and 17th out of 24, dropping them back to third place in the American League East for the first time since June 10. Additionally, Baltimore is now two games over .500, its slimmest margin since April 22, the 16th game of the season.
It started, as it typically has during the Orioles' tough stretch, with the starting pitching. Heralding some adjustments, including a longer stride and moving back to the third base side of the mound, Britton's delivery wasn't the problem. His tentativeness was.
"It was more overthinking it," Britton said of the 100-pitch outing in which he threw 54 strikes. "I knew I was up in the [zone] first couple innings. Really not being confident and driving the ball down, so I was tentative with that and not wanting to leave the ball up. And that can kind of get into you [mentally] a little bit."
"He's capable of doing this," manager Buck Showalter said of Britton, who went 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA as a rookie in 2011. "It's one start. He did a lot to get to this point, and I'm proud of him to earn the right. But now he's got to earn the right to stay here."
Britton's stay on the mound Tuesday night didn't last long, as he turned the ball over to reliever Luis Ayala, who let three inherited runners score to push Britton's final line to four runs on six hits and six walks over four-plus innings.
"In the beginning, the starters did a good job. Now they've been struggling and the bullpen is struggling too," Ayala said of a relief corps that has pitched 26 2/3 innings in five games, accounting for 62 percent of the team's total.
Since ending the first half of the season with an American League-leading 2.75 ERA, the bullpen has pitched to a 7.15 ERA in five games. Their success, which buoyed the team through some early uneven pitching performances, will hinge on the starters as the season wears on.
"We don't have anything to lose," Ayala said of an Orioles club that has remained in the thick of the AL East race. "We've had a good first half and I think we've had better times [than] right now. But I think the good time is coming."
On for his third inning of work in the seventh, Ayala allowed a two-out infield single to No. 9 batter Jamey Carroll and Denard Span's ball to shortstop J.J. Hardy -- which was ruled a hit -- put runners on the corners when Hardy's throw one-hopped and went past first baseman Mark Reynolds.
"You don't see J.J. do that a whole lot," Twins catcher Joe Mauer said of the play which was ruled to be a single and a throwing error on Hardy. "That was a tough play."
Showalter then brought hard-throwing Pedro Strop out to face Ben Revere with the go-ahead run 90 feet away. Strop got ahead 0-2, but couldn't close him out, as Revere singled to right field, scoring Carroll to give the Twins their first lead of the game at 5-4. Mauer followed with a single that just got by a diving Hardy to increase Minnesota's lead to two runs.
The offense, which has been sluggish the last month, couldn't capitalize on the early ineffectiveness of Twins starter Samuel Deduno. After getting a first-inning run, which scored on a wild pitch, Jones broke a 1-1 tie with a three-run homer off Deduno in the fifth.
Thirteen of Jones' 21 homers have tied or given the Orioles the lead this season. But that was all the O's could muster, despite chasing Deduno from the game after 4 1/3 innings and a line that included six hits and five walks.
"We just need to put it back together," Hardy said.
The same can be said for Hardy, who went 1-for-4 and entered the game with a .160 batting average since June 1.
"It's a matter of time," Hardy said. "I got to come out of this at some points. Obviously, it's been a while and it's not a lot of fun, but it's going to turn around at some point."
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.