If this was to be the week the new, improved Baltimore Orioles measured themselves against the best teams in their division, the news is bad and getting worse by the day. Helpless against New York Yankees veteran David Cone and undone again by their own bullpen, the Orioles crashed to a 7-4 loss today in front of a sellout crowd of 47,841 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The loss was the Orioles' fourth straight, all against the division-leading Yankees and second-place Red Sox.

Worse, the rejuvenating effect of the Orioles' recent two-week tear is all but gone, both figuratively and statistically. The Orioles were 12 games out of first place June 9, the day they started their 11-1 stretch that launched them into this week; today's loss dropped them back to 12 1/2 games out.

"It all boils down to pitching," Manager Ray Miller said. "Until we get some consistency in our pitching, we're going to have a tough time with teams of this caliber."

Despite starter Jason Johnson (1-2) pitching into the seventh inning for the first time in his career, despite a 425-foot home run by Cal Ripken in the seventh and a four-run ninth inning, keyed by Jeff Conine's pinch-hit homer, the Orioles fell to 4-16 against American League East teams.

Today's implosion occurred during the interminable eighth inning, in which relievers Ricky Bones and Arthur Rhodes turned a still-winnable 3-1 game into a mess. Bones failed to retire either of the two hitters he faced, and Rhodes retired only one of his five batters, as the Yankees batted around. Tino Martinez's two-run double off Rhodes was the key hit.

"I don't know what to do, I guess just keep plugging," Miller said of his bullpen, which has a 5.71 earned run average. "I've spent the entire year trying to set up roles on this ballclub, for middle men and long men and all that. But in order to have roles, someone has to fulfill one."

The Orioles scored four in the ninth off reliever Todd Erdos, forcing Yankees Manager Joe Torre to use closer Mariano Rivera for the last out. Rivera struck out B.J. Surhoff to end the game, sparing Miller the embarrassment of having Jeff Reboulet at the plate with the game on the line. Reboulet, who was hitting in Albert Belle's spot after Belle was pulled after the eighth inning, was on deck when the game ended.

The Orioles are so high on Johnson, they have taken themselves out of the hunt for another starting pitcher, a pursuit that began in spring training. Today, Johnson had his best start as an Oriole, throwing seven strong innings.

"He's a big, tall guy with an easy motion," Miller said. "He can get good fastball hitters and good fastball counts. You see a lot of balls popped up into shallow center field. He's a good-looking young pitcher. Each time out he shows more and more."

But Cone (8-3) was at his best today, weaving his wide assortment of pitches from different arm angles in and out of the strike zone. "He had good command of his off-speed pitches," Orioles first baseman Will Clark said. "When he fell behind, he could throw those off-speed pitches for strikes."

Through the first five innings, the only hit Cone had allowed was a bloop single to left by Harold Baines in the second. Surhoff and Belle put together two-out singles in the sixth, but Cone got Baines to line out to shortstop to end the inning.

In the seventh, Ripken hit a mammoth homer to left, his 10th, which landed in the last row of the lower left field section.

Miller brought right-hander Bones in to start the eighth, essentially to retire two hitters -- the switch-hitting Williams and the right-handed Derek Jeter -- but Bones got neither of them. Williams doubled to left-center and Jeter singled. With left-handed Martinez up, Miller turned to Rhodes, who has been sharing closer duties with Mike Timlin for the last month. But Martinez doubled to left-center, scoring both runs. A wild pitch, two walks and a single later, it was 7-1.

"I wasn't counting on two walks and four hits off two guys in the eighth inning," Miller said. "But if the bullpen does its job it's either a 3-1 loss or we tie it up and we have a heck of a game. . . . My pitching coach is working hard. The guys are all trying hard, maybe too hard. But it isn't getting done out there."

CAPTION: Yankees' Luis Sojo slides safely home as Charles Johnson waits for the ball in eighth inning.

CAPTION: David Cone (8-3) throttles Orioles with off-speed pitches, limiting them to one run on five hits in eight innings. He allowed one hit in first five innings.