Baltimore Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman isn’t sure why it is happening, but he knows he needs to be better early in games if he’s going to continue his ascent as a major league starter.

In the Orioles’ 5-2 loss to the Houston Astros on Sunday, Tillman walked the first two batters he faced and then gave up a three-run homer to Jason Castro to put his team down three runs.

Tillman didn’t allow a run during the remainder of his five-inning outing, but it didn’t matter. The outcome was determined after the first three batters.

“He just never quite got in sync, but a lot of guys would have imploded there,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said about Tillman. “He kept us in the ballgame and threw some zeros up after that. But it wasn’t what he’s capable of or what we’ve come to expect.”

Tillman (3-2) has allowed 21 earned runs in eight starts this year for a 3.97 ERA; seven of those runs have come in the first inning and six more in the second inning. In his first two innings, he has pitched to an ERA of 7.31; his ERA after the second inning is 2.27.

“I got nothing,” Tillman said as an explanation to why he has struggled early. “Once I notice what’s going on, [I’m fine]. I guess I need to notice it earlier, kind of find out what’s going on and how to deal with it.”

Overall, Tillman allowed four hits and a season-high five walks while striking out three against baseball’s worst hitting club.

The loss snapped the Orioles’ season-best five-game winning streak and prohibited them from securing their first three-game series sweep at Camden Yards this season. But the Orioles (20-15) remain in first place in the American League East, 11 / 2 games ahead of the New York Yankees.

The Astros (12-26) still have the worst record in the majors.

For a while, it looked like the Orioles might make it three consecutive games in which they came back to beat the Astros. They cut Houston’s lead to 3-2 in the third inning on Adam Jones’s two-run single for his 500th and 501st career RBI. But the club failed to take advantage of multiple opportunities against Houston starter Jarred Cosart.

Only once did Cosart have a clean inning, but the Orioles left six runners on base in six innings against him.

In the seventh, Houston first baseman Marc Krauss hit a two-run homer to right against left-handed reliever T.J. McFarland to give the Astros another three-run lead.

McFarland was optioned to Class AAA Norfolk after the game.

— Baltimore Sun