Baltimore designated hitter Nick Johnson heads back to the dugout after striking out with two runners in scoring position to end the eighth inning during an 8-6 loss to Boston. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

The last time the Baltimore Orioles met the Boston Red Sox, they played baseball’s version of the Boston Marathon — a 17-inning contest at Fenway Park that completed Baltimore’s first sweep of Boston since 1994. And the last time Boston came to Camden Yards in September, they left with their season shattered, sent prematurely into an offseason of upheaval.

Its pretty clear that the Orioles have had the Red Sox’s number of late, beating Boston in seven of their past eight. But these Red Sox arrived at Oriole Park on Monday surging, winners of eight of their past 10 games as they try to work their way out of the early-season American League East cellar.

While the key to the Orioles’ drive into first place in the division has been their quality pitching, Monday’s series opener was far from the team’s most polished pitching performance, one that ended with an 8-6 loss in front of an announced crowd of 16,392.

Starter Tommy Hunter struggled and the Orioles bullpen yielded three runs as Baltimore blew a three-run lead heading into the seventh. Baltimore allowed one run on the untimeliest of balks and another that was set up by a wild pitch.

“There’s a lot more that went into that game than that,” Baltimore Manager Buck Showalter said. “We had some great opportunities. We had the go-ahead run at the plate. We made them get everybody up in their bullpen tonight and we only had to get two up, so hopefully we can get our sea legs back under us if they’re not.”

Suddenly-dominating displaced closer Kevin Gregg — who came into the night with a 91 / 3-inning scoreless streak over his last seven outings, lowering his ERA from 12.27 to 3.46 in that span — allowed two runs in the seventh in a tied game.

With a Tampa Bay loss to Toronto, the Orioles (27-16) clung to their two-game lead on the second-place Rays atop the AL East.

With the score tied at 5 in the seventh, the Red Sox chipped away at Gregg. Mike Aviles hit a one-out single to left, following by a Dustin Pedroia double down the right-field line.

The Orioles then took a chance by intentionally walking David Ortiz – who one inning earlier hit his second career homer onto Eutaw Street an estimated 442 feet – with first base open, hoping to get an inning-ending double play ball.

But Adrian Gonzalez’s sacrifice fly to left scored one run, and Will Middlebrooks’s single up the middle scored another to give the Red Sox a 7-5 lead.

“They didn’t hit it at people,” said Gregg, who was dealt the loss. “Actually, the way the ball was coming out and the location of the pitches, they were good pitches. If you go back and look at the video, sometimes you give up hits on pitches you’re happy with.

“I got in trouble in the past for trying to do more,” Gregg added. “[I have to] just stay within myself and continue to make pitches. Unfortunately, [we] came out on the wrong end of things today.”

Boston (21-21), which reached the .500 mark for just the third time this season, scored another run off left-hander Troy Patton in a sloppy eighth inning. After No. 9 hitter Che-Hsuan Lin registered his first major league hit with two outs, Aviles reached after a swinging third strike went to the backstop. That set the stage for Pedroia’s run-scoring single to left to give Boston a three-run lead.

But the Orioles’ bullpen, which entered the night second in the majors with a 2.15 ERA, hasn’t been the same the past two games. The pen has allowed six runs in their last 62 / 3 innings, that coming after allowing just seven runs over the previous 30.

— Baltimore Sun