Orioles 5, Devil Rays 4

If the Baltimore Orioles were treating Rodrigo Lopez's start Sunday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a referendum on his future -- should he be kept in the starting rotation or returned to the bullpen? -- there was little about his 61/3-inning performance that would tilt the balance in either direction.

Facing an aggressive Devil Rays lineup that swung early and often, Lopez was battered for 10 hits but surrendered only three runs in the Orioles' 5-4 victory in front of 46,044 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The victory ended the Orioles' four-game losing streak and gave them a split of the rain-shortened two-game series against the AL East's cellar dwellers.

The Orioles seized the lead in the middle innings, then watched as closer Jorge Julio barely held a two-run lead in the ninth, holding on for his ninth save.

With the Orioles' bullpen still not recovered from Lopez's promotion to the rotation May 20, and with lefty Matt Riley on the verge of being called up from Class AAA Ottawa following a second impressive start, Lopez may have been pitching for his spot in the rotation.

He delivered the longest and most economical of his four starts, needing just 96 pitches to pitch into the seventh inning for the first time; by contrast, six days earlier at Boston he needed 109 pitches to labor through 51/3 innings.

On Sunday, however, the numbers were skewed by the impatience of the Devil Rays' swing-happy hitters, who completed 16 of their 29 at-bats in three or fewer pitches, including seven that ended in one pitch.

"To be honest, I didn't feel like I had my best stuff," Lopez (5-2) said. "But I'm trying to get deeper into games."

Asked after the game about Lopez's future path, Manager Lee Mazzilli was noncommittal. "It all depends," he said, "on what happens with the team."

Lopez might have been staring at a loss instead of a win were it not for two pivotal, controversial calls that went in the Orioles' favor.

In the bottom of the fourth -- with one out, a runner on third, the Orioles trailing by a run and the Devil Rays' infield playing at medium depth in hopes of cutting off a run at the plate -- Luis Matos hit a weak grounder to shortstop against Devil Rays starter Rob Bell (1-3).

Shortstop Julio Lugo looked the runner back to third, then threw to first. Umpire John Hirschbeck called Matos safe, but replays appeared to show the throw beat him.

The next batter, Larry Bigbie, hit a towering fly ball to center field that, instead of being the third out, became a score-tying sacrifice fly. And two batters after that, Brian Roberts smashed a ground-rule double to right-center, bringing home the go-ahead run.

"It was very surprising," Lugo said about Hirschbeck's call. "I didn't even think it was that close. I thought he was out. And that was the key to the game, too."

An inning later, Orioles catcher Javy Lopez scored from second on Matos's single to center. The throw from center fielder Rocco Baldelli beat Lopez to the plate, but catcher Toby Hall's tag was high. Devil Rays Manager Lou Piniella sprinted out of his dugout to argue to no avail.

If the Orioles benefited from those questionable calls, they also suffered because of another one. Right fielder B.J. Surhoff appeared to make a sliding catch on Rey Sanchez's sinking liner in the second inning, but Hirschbeck ruled he had trapped the ball, as Lugo scored Tampa Bay's first run.

Julio's travails added another element of intrigue to the proceedings. Flawless relief by lefties John Parrish and B.J. Ryan carried the 5-3 lead to the ninth inning, whereupon Julio took over. He immediately put the tying runs in scoring position, giving up a bloop single by Hall and a double off the scoreboard in right by pinch hitter Robert Fick, and Mazzilli quickly got a pair of relievers ready in the bullpen.

"It was just a safety valve," Mazzilli said, "in case [the Devil Rays] tied the game."

One out later, a run scored on Baldelli's sacrifice fly, and Aubrey Huff drew a walk to put the potential go-ahead run on base. But Tino Martinez flied out to right to end the game.

Still, the outing was the fifth in a row by Julio in which he has allowed at least one run.

"He's trying to find his command," Mazzilli said. "He threw three or four breaking balls in a row, and he really doesn't do that [normally]."

While a closer controversy may be coming nearer into view, the more immediate concern is what to do with Lopez once Riley returns. Lopez has a 6.33 ERA as a starter, and an 0.33 ERA as a reliever, but he insisted again he is more valuable to the team in the rotation. When it was pointed out to him that the bullpen has suffered since his departure, he replied, "That's not my fault."

Orioles Notes: Third baseman Melvin Mora, who had led the American League in hitting since May 14, went 0 for 5 to drop his average to .370, five points behind Kansas City's Ken Harvey (.375). . . .

Mazzilli said he might make several lineup changes when the Orioles face Arizona Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson in the interleague opener, Tuesday night at Camden Yards. One possibility is resting veteran first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who is 1 for 21 with five strikeouts lifetime against Johnson.

Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada throws over Tampa Bay's Fred McGriff to complete double play in 6th inning.