BALTIMORE -- For three innings on Friday night, Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen cruised, retiring nine of 10 and needing just 35 pitches in an outing that looked -- at least early on -- like perhaps the making of something special.
The Yankees had other plans. On a sticky September night, Chen struggled to find his command, letting the game slip away by allowing three homers that paved the way for Baltimore's 8-5 loss in front of 40,861 at Camden Yards. The defeat gives New York sole possession of the American League East and marks the Orioles' (77-61) fourth loss in the two clubs' last 12 contests, evening the season series at eight wins apiece.
Following a riveting 10-6 victory Thursday night -- which center fielder Adam Jones called "by far" the Orioles' best win this season -- Chen put his team in an early seven-run hole that proved too much despite the O's best intentions.
"In our dugout, that wasn't the feeling," manager Buck Showalter said of the Yankees' lead being too much for his never-say-die club to rally back from. "[The loss] wasn't because the 'want to' wasn't there. There was a lot of energy there again, the fans were great. Just a disappointment we couldn't return the favor."
Chen (12-9) ran into trouble to start the fourth inning, hitting Nick Swisher with a pitch and walking Robinson Cano to bring up cleanup hitter Alex Rodriguez. After striking out A-Rod, Russell Martin made Chen pay in the form of a three run-homer, and one out later, former Oriole Steve Pearce followed suit. Pearce's homer, which also scored Andruw Jones, just eclipsed the left-field wall, and outfielder Nate McLouth was visibility upset with a fan in the stands, who McLouth felt got in his way.
"I had it," McLouth said of Pearce's ball. "And it was unfortunate, because it's a run. And it was a fairly, I don't want to say easy catch, but I was standing there kind of waiting for it. And I haven't seen the replay, but something hit my glove. And I'm sure it was someone's hand of arm or something like that."
Said Showalter of the interference: "It's like a foul ball, when the ball would have ended up in the stands, you're on your own."
And Chen couldn't regain his prior form, allowing Rodriguez to balloon the Yankees' lead to seven with a two-run homer two outs into the fifth, ending the lefty's night.
"I wasn't able to attack the strike zone ... and that was the problem," said Chen, who allowed a career high in home runs and earned runs allowed. "This is the Yankees, and I made a couple of mistakes and they made me pay the price."
Could it be that the 26-year-old Chen, in his first season in the Major Leagues, is tiring down the stretch?
"I'm not tired at all," said Chen, who had an extra day's rest going into Friday's start. "The last couple outings I feel strong, physically. And mentally I feel strong, too."
Showalter agreed with Chen, and said he didn't think the organization -- which has given Chen an extra day's rest whenever possible this season -- is concerned that he's starting to fade.
"We've stayed ahead of it, as you've seen," Showalter said. "I don't know what else you do. The next step is being accused of being overly precautionary. We feel like we've got a good grip on him, physically. We'll see. Sometimes, the other team's good, too."
The Orioles did close the gap with a three-run sixth inning off Yankees starter Phil Hughes, highlighted by Jones' three-run homer. J.J. Hardy reached on Swisher's error at first base, and McLouth's double put runners on the corners for Jones, fresh off a go-ahead homer in Thursday's win. The O's center fielder crushed Hughes' offering, sending it into the bullpen in left-center field, extending his own team lead in homers to 29 in the process.
No. 9 hitter Robert Andino sliced the O's deficit to three by homering for the second consecutive game, a one-out solo blast off reliever Cody Eppley in the seventh. Eppley, who replaced Hughes after six innings, was pulled after Andino's homer in favor of lefty Boone Logan to face the top of the order and hold off the Orioles.
"We just kept having good at-bats and tried to work our way into it," McLouth said. "We were able to do that to some extent, but we couldn't get over that hump."
Rookie Steve Johnson did an impressive job of stopping New York's bats, pitching three scoreless innings to keep the game close after Chen. Johnson allowed one hit and struck out three before giving the ball to lefty Brian Matusz, who was charged with a run in the ninth on an inherited runner Luis Ayala let score on Derek Jeter's RBI single.
Manny Machado's solo homer in the ninth closed the scoring for Baltimore, which is one game ahead of Tampa Bay after the Rays' 11th-inning walk-off win Friday night helped them keep pace in the AL Wild Card race. As for the division, Friday's loss left the Yankees in first place, a spot they've held at least a share of every day since the start of play June 12.
"We just took advantage of [Chen's] mistakes," Yankees catcher Russell Martin said of the early lead. "It looked like he was leaving pitches up in the zone a little bit. We were fighting to get to his pitches, but he probably made a few more mistakes than he wanted."
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.