Braves 7, Orioles 5

-- They were in sole possession of first place for a sweet two months and a day. Somehow it seemed longer. It can be said the Baltimore Orioles enjoyed their time at the top. The national press visited often and wrote about the developing story line of a once proud franchise's return to first place.

At times the wins were bountiful and their division foes appeared mediocre. They had opportunities to run away with the American League East, but could not take advantage of their foes' slumps. They had various devastating injuries, but somehow persevered.

But after Friday's 7-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves, the Orioles found themselves trailing the Boston Red Sox by a half-game in the American League East.

"That's why it's a long season," Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "Tomorrow it could flip-flop again."

The Orioles did not go without a fight. James Baldwin, once an all-star but now a journeyman, held the game together with 32/3 scoreless innings. It was not enough.

"When things are tough, this team scratches like a son of a gun," Mazzilli said. "We have to scratch right now. They gave me everything they had. It's no reason to hang their heads."

The Orioles have lost four of five and are out of first place for the first time since April 22. Meantime, the Red Sox have won 10 of 11.

"We know we're in a tough division and everybody knows the Red Sox and Yankees are going to bounce back," Orioles left fielder Larry Bigbie said. "We just hit a stretch right now that we've stayed out of all year. One thing we're definitely not doing in this clubhouse is panicking. It's not fun unless it's a close race. Obviously you'd love to run away with it, especially in this division. But I think everybody knows that's not going to happen."

If anything has been proven in this rough stretch, it's that Baltimore needs starting pitching help if they are to contend all season. The rotation's lack of experience was evident this week. Baltimore scouted San Francisco Giants pitcher Jason Schmidt and will likely continue to follow him.

No Orioles starter has pitched more than 51/3 innings since Sunday. In that span, Orioles starters have allowed 26 runs in just 221/3 innings (10.48 ERA).

"You only go as far as your starting pitching," catcher Sal Fasano said. "It stinks because we need to get on a nice run here and we need someone to shut the door for us, somebody who can grab the bull by the horns and say, 'We're going to win regardless.' "

Bigbie hit a three-run homer in the fourth inning and Brian Roberts's homer an inning later cut the deficit to 7-5, but three Atlanta relievers kept Baltimore scoreless through the final four innings.

The Braves had quickly disposed of rookie pitcher Hayden Penn with six runs in the first two innings.

"The good pitches I made, they hit," Penn said. "The bad pitches I made, they hit harder."

Marcus Giles and Andruw Jones hit back-to-back home runs in the first to score the first three runs. Atlanta added three more runs in the second and put the first two runners on base in the third.

At that point, Penn's night came to an end. Mazzilli made a slow stroll to the mound and then motioned for Baldwin.

"It was unfortunate because we could have used a stopper today," Fasano said.

Mazzilli, disappointed of the result but understanding the young pitcher's plight, spoke with Penn for several minutes and then gave the 20-year-old a smile. He lost for the first time in his career.

"It'll be all right," Mazzilli told him.