BALTIMORE -- The Orioles' biggest strength this season has been their bullpen, but Friday night it was their Achilles' heel. Tasked to protect a one-run lead, All-Star closer Jim Johnson turned in his worst outing this season, surrendering six runs and leaving without completing the inning, another first in 2012.
The result was a painful 14-9 series-opening loss to the Oakland A's, a defeat that came after the Orioles rallied from behind twice, including a three-run eighth inning that kept a crowd of 29,278 at Camden Yards consistently on its feet.
"It's not very fun from this end," designated hitter Jim Thome said of the back-and-forth, four-hour contest which marked the first time in 42 games this season the Orioles lost when leading after the eighth inning. "That game could have went either way. Credit them. They battled back there against a very good pitcher of ours. And, you know, we'll take our chances with that situation a lot of times."
Johnson, who entered the game tied with Pittsburgh's Joel Hanrahan for the most saves in the Majors, blew his third save in 33 chances and allowed a career-high in runs in six seasons as a reliever. He surrendered a trio of one-out singles -- including Derek Norris' game-tying hit that found a hole in between first and second base -- in an inning that quickly got away.
"Eventually, with the results, it did [snowball]," Johnson said. "I didn't feel like that at the moment. I felt like the whole time I had, up until they scored the go-ahead run, I felt like I was one pitch away. Even after they scored the go-ahead run, I felt like we could still get out of this with the way the guys were swinging tonight."
But it didn't stop there. After the A's took the lead on Jemile Weeks' flare into left field, Coco Crisp followed suit with a two-run single that found a hole through second and first base. Reliever Luis Ayala allowed a pair of inherited runners to score on Seth Smith's double to push Oakland's lead to five.
"I'm not going to beat myself up too much about it, because I think it's an anomaly today," said Johnson, who has pitched to a 6.97 ERA in his last 22 games, with two outings of five or more runs allowed. "Knowing what my preparation was, how I went about it, I did everything except for make a couple pitches and, obviously, the end result wasn't what we wanted."
Asked if he thought Johnson has been less sharp of late, manager Buck Showalter said: "Compared to what? This is a hard job to do and he's done it as good as anybody in baseball. Pitchers deserved a lot better fate. A lot of borderline pitches that can go either way."
After coming back from an early five-run deficit, the Orioles watched a four-run fifth inning negated by a trio of sixth-inning runs as starter Zach Britton exited and Miguel Socolovich struggled with command, issuing a pair of walks and giving up a bases-clearing double to Smith.
Still, the O's roared back with a three-run eighth-inning courtesy of RBI singles from J.J. Hardy -- who drove in three runs on the night -- Thome and Chris Davis, who also homered in the second. Davis' go-ahead line drive to left fielder Yoenis Cespedes scored Hardy and the inning ended with Thome, trying to stretch the lead to two, getting tagged out at the plate.
The out would come back to haunt the Orioles, as would leaving the bases loaded in the seventh, as a red-hot Oakland club showed it had some late-game fight, as well. The A's have won eight of nine games, handing the Orioles their fourth defeat in five games in taking Friday's series opener.
"That was a heavyweight fight," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "That was about as hard as you can battle. That might have been, as far as games go, both teams fighting that hard, one of the better games I've ever seen, actually."
The Orioles' offense made up for Britton's misstep -- which included five runs allowed in the first two innings -- and Socolovich, who was recalled prior to the game and forced into a big spot given the bullpen's depleted state. After a pair of early runs, Adam Jones delivered the big blow off rookie Jarrod Parker with a three-run homer in the fifth to give the Orioles a one-run lead. The clutch hit was nothing new for Jones, who has had 16 of 24 homers this year either tie or give the Orioles the lead.
"You could see as well as we were swinging that we were going to put some runs up," said Britton, who surrendered five runs before recording an out in the second inning. "And I told myself to try to go as deep in the game as I could."
The 24-year-old Britton settled in after that, retiring nine straight before Josh Reddick's double -- which was disputed as a potential homer, but not overturned -- two outs into the fifth. Britton managed to battle through 5 2/3 before Showalter brought in Socolovich.
"We battled back," Thome said. "You put yourself in a position to get ahead, but you know, you can't dwell on it. You can't look back. You move ahead, and that's what we have to do. It was a heck of a game. Unfortunately, we didn't pull it out."
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.