Left-hander Wei-Yin Chen has turned into arguably Baltimore’s most reliable starting pitcher, though the native of Taiwan has struggled when reaching the seventh inning and beyond in his outings. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)

The Baltimore Orioles ended their homestand 4-5. That’s a tough stretch by any definition when you are in a pennant race.

But, right now, it seems especially disappointing. Because it came against the Boston Red Sox — the leaders of the American League East — and then the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners, who own two of the worst records in the AL.

This was, perhaps, the best opportunity to make up some real ground on the Red Sox. Instead, the Orioles have gone backward.

Yet, it’s not all sky-is-falling. The O’s get four straight series against the NL West, which may be the shakiest division in baseball. If they go under .500 in those 11 games (including three at home against Colorado) then you can panic a little more.

In my opinion, Wei-Yin Chen is Baltimore’s best pitcher. I love what Chris Tillman has done this season and I admire Miguel Gonzalez’s grit, but if I need to win one game in 2013, I give the ball to Chen.

That said, it is alarming how stark his stats are as a game progresses. The left-hander has allowed 10 runs in 39 innings (2.31 ERA) in the first three innings of his 13 starts; he’s allowed eight runs in 352 / 3 innings (2.02 ERA) in the second third of a game; and he’s given up seven runs in 72 / 3 innings (8.22 ERA) in the seventh and eighth. He hasn’t pitched in the ninth this season.

That happens to a lot of pitchers, but it’s a bit disconcerting for a guy who is your de facto ace. That said, Chen is a competitor and keeps himself in great shape.

Manager Buck Showalter is the best I’ve ever seen at handling his bullpen. But there’s growing criticism about how he handles his starters. It seems like every few days I’m getting tweets and e-mails about how Showalter left his starter in too long.

Frankly, it’s a crapshoot. Yes, there are indicators that Chen, for instance, isn’t effective in the seventh, but Showalter bases things on how he feels about a particular pitcher’s stuff at a given time. It’s a gut thing primarily.

What separates fans (and writers) from the good managers is the ability to make that call. And to live with it. I respect that. And I get that sometimes that instinct is going to be wrong. And it’s a pretty obvious thing to second guess when it blows up — like it did Sunday.

I could see pulling Chen after the second consecutive walk in the seventh, but he was facing the No. 9 hitter with two outs. Henry Blanco homered. It’s a much easier call now.

I like watching Joe Saunders — Sunday’s pitcher for Seattle — pitch. He does nothing impressive. But he gets outs and throws strikes. He shows no fear. Yes, he gives up a lot of hits and occasionally gets crushed when he doesn’t have his best stuff. But I’d take him at the back end of my rotation.

That said, I was told during the trade deadline that the Orioles weren’t looking to bring Saunders back. They liked what he did last year, but aren’t willing to give up more talent to get him.

And, frankly, they don’t need another guy at the back end this year. They need someone at the front, and that’s really not available on the trade market. And don’t mention Cliff Lee — if he really were available, he’d be in a different uniform right now.

— Baltimore Sun