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Astros stumble against Brewers

Astros stumble in opener

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MILWAUKEE -- The Houston Astros buried themselves a little deeper in the division standings on Monday, but at this point, the focus is not on catching the first-place team as much as it just stringing a handful of wins together and heading north of .500.

Houston's 6-1 loss to the division-leading Milwaukee Brewers continued the nosedive in the wrong direction. The Astros are 12 games behind the Brewers in the National League Central standings and 12 games under .500.

Double-digit deficits in both categories are rather unsettling to an Astros club that is quickly becoming a non-factor in its own division.

"For us, more than anything else, we have to start approaching .500 here pretty quick," Lance Berkman said. "It doesn't really matter who we're playing. Obviously, when you're playing a team that's leading the division, you want to do well and you want to try to make up some ground. But more importantly for us, we've just got to get back to .500 before we can do anything."

The Astros have lost nine of their last 11 series. Since sweeping the Mariners at home, they're 2-5 -- dropping two of three in Anaheim and Texas. And they're 2-5 vs. Milwaukee this year.

"We have to start winning," manager Phil Garner said. "Division leaders, it doesn't matter who we're playing. We have to start winning. Obviously, playing the division leader, it helps to beat them. But our biggest culprit, right now, is ourselves. We've just got to start winning. It doesn't matter who we're playing."

This week would be a good time to start. Playing their first non-Interleague game in more than two weeks, the Astros sunk back to their light-hitting ways, a habit they somewhat abandoned during their block of games against the American League.

Carlos Lee's solo homer against his former club was the lone highlight in this loss. Lee launched his 13th long ball of the year off Brewers starter Ben Sheets in the sixth, but the rest of the lineup wasn't much of a factor. Sheets scattered five hits over six innings, improving to 9-3 on the year. He's 4-0 with a 1.47 ERA over five starts in June.

"He was OK tonight," Berkman said. "I don't think he had his best stuff, but he was certainly good enough. It seemed like we were off a bit tonight as a team. I don't know if that had something to do with the 4 a.m. arrival [on Monday morning] or not. But it seemed like guys were a little bit sluggish. I don't know. Benny's always tough. He's a great pitcher. He's one of the best in the league."

"The one thing Sheets did pretty good tonight was he was just right at the top of the zone," Garner said. "He was so close to being out of the zone a few times, and he was right down in the zone a few times. If you can do that, he can be tough. And he did."

Jason Jennings pitched well enough to win but fell to 1-2 on the year after yielding three runs over seven innings. He gave up a solo homer to J.J. Hardy in the first frame, and the Brewers took a 3-0 lead in the third behind an RBI single by Corey Hart and a run-scoring double by Ryan Braun.

In his fifth start since returning from the disabled list, Jennings threw 111 pitches -- a season-high.

"He got stretched out a little bit and got deep in the game," Garner said. "It was much needed for us. It was one of those things where we wished we could win the ballgame for him. We need him to step up and be a big No. 2 for us, and he pitched like it tonight. I was very pleased with it tonight."

Jennings allowed seven baserunners in his final four innings, without allowing a run. He acknowledged that he grew stronger as the game progressed, a trend that has followed him throughout his career.

"It takes a couple of innings to get into the rhythm of the game," Jennings said. "A lot of times, if I give up a big inning, it'll be early. It's something I've always battled, for whatever reason. I seem to get stronger as the game goes on."

The game went downhill after Jennings departed in the eighth. Prince Fielder launched a solo homer to straightaway center off lefty Stephen Randolph, and back-to-back doubles by Bill Hall and Johnny Estrada gave the Brewers a four-run lead. Tony Graffanino's sacrifice fly off Dave Borkowski plated the Brewers' final run.

A loss on Tuesday would put the Astros a season-high 13 games under .500.

"Even if you come out ahead winning two games and take the series, you still only pick up a game [on the Brewers] and you only pick up a game on .500," Garner said. "We need to put together some streaks. The disappointing thing is we're falling away from .500."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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