CLEVELAND -- Even with their struggles all afternoon on Sunday, the Indians were still in a great situation in the ninth inning. With two runners on and the Tribe trailing by just one run, All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera came to the plate with a chance to tie or win the game. Cabrera already had a walk-off home run against a dominant closer earlier this season.
But Cabrera -- very much epitomizing the Indians anemic offense as a whole -- struck out in the key situation to send the Indians to their fourth consecutive loss, 4-3, against the Orioles in the third game of a four-game series at Progressive Field. The defeat -- coupled with the Tigers' 6-4 win over the White Sox -- puts the Indians four and a half games behind Detroit for first place in the American League Central. The Indians (47-48) fell to below .500 for the first time since April 14.
"It seems like we're playing like we're tanked, like we're gassed right now, but we're not," said Indians outfielder Shelley Duncan. "We just can't get anything going to get some excitement and some momentum on the team. We're missing that, we're missing that game where we score a lot of runs and have a lot of fun."
Cleveland certainly made it interesting in the ninth inning, though. Trailing 4-0, the Indians finally found some offense. After Jose Lopez struck out to begin the frame, Michael Brantley singled to center and Carlos Santana knocked him in with a two-run blast to the right-field bleachers. Santana was 3-for-4 and fell a triple shy of the cycle in the game.
The Orioles then went to their All-Star closer, Jim Johnson, who was greeted by Duncan with a double off the wall in left. Pinch-hitter Travis Hafner made it a one-run game with an RBI single to right, and Shin-Soo Choo walked. The furious rally fell short when Cabrera -- who went 0-for-5 and is in a 7-for-49 slump -- struck out swinging on a breaking ball well out of the zone.
Johnson, who earned his 30th save, said he purposely worked around Choo so he could face Cabrera.
"I didn't have a matchup I liked, so I forced myself to pitch around Choo," Johnson said. "I didn't like the matchup with the way I felt on the mound today. I felt like I had a better opportunity to get Cabrera for the last out."
Their ninth-inning production aside, the Indians continued to have issues at the plate. They had only four hits in the first eight innings and, going back to Saturday night's loss, the Tribe went 16 straight innings without a run. Cleveland has scored only six runs during its current four-game slide.
It's easy to explain the team's offensive woes from the first loss during the stretch. The Indians were facing Tampa Bay's David Price on Thursday, one of the best left-handers in the game. But their lack of production in the last three games has been head scratching because it has come against an inexperienced Baltimore starting rotation.
On Sunday, it was left-hander Zach Britton that gave the Indians fits. Britton, who was making just his second start of the season, was coming off an outing against the Twins in which he lasted only four innings and gave up four runs. Against Cleveland, though, he breezed through six shutout frames.
"Not until the last inning were we really aggressive in the strike zone," said Indians manager Manny Acta. "It seemed like we had two strikes a lot, and that's been a theme of late.
"There are times when it doesn't matter who you see. If you're scuffling, you're scuffling, and we're scuffling right now."
The lack of production made a loser out of starter Josh Tomlin, who turned in a quality outing after a rough first inning. Nick Markakis greeted the right-hander with an infield single to lead off the game, and J.J. Hardy put Baltimore on top with a towering two-run homer over the wall in left field. Before Tomlin had even recorded an out, the Indians already trailed by two runs.
Tomlin settled in, though, and only allowed two runs over six innings. But the Indians bullpen gave up single insurance runs in the seventh and eighth, and the four-run deficit proved too much to overcome.
After another disappointing defeat, it's evident that something seems to be missing for the Indians, who are beginning to fall out of the playoff race. With one game left in the series with Baltimore before their meeting with first-place Detroit, the Indians know they must regroup, and quickly.
"We've really got to pull together as a team," Duncan said. "This is the time for everyone to be positive with each other and not look at the negatives. This is the time we should put the foot on the gas and not freak out."
Justin Albers is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.