Jennings strong, but bats quiet in loss

Jennings strong, but bats quiet in loss

HOUSTON -- For the first two months of the regular season, the storyline of the Astros consisted of numerous quality starts from the rotation, an air-tight bullpen and an offense that didn't score enough runs to reward the pitching.

But in June, the script was completely reversed. The Houston offense had come on strong in recent weeks, while the pitching -- particularly the bullpen -- came unglued. The script held true for the first two games of the Colorado series, with the Astros scoring eight or more runs in each and still having to wait until their final at-bat to clinch the win.

On Saturday, however, it was back to square one.

Despite a quality start from Jason Jennings, the Astros struggled at the plate against Colorado lefty Jeff Francis, losing, 5-0, to the Rockies and not carrying over any momentum from the offensive fireworks in the past two games.

"It's unfortunate, because we had a whole lot of momentum coming out of these last two ballgames," manager Phil Garner said. "I don't think it was terrific pitching. I don't want to give that much credit. [Francis] pitched an OK game, but I didn't think it was shutout quality.

"We just didn't strike the ball."

Jennings looked strong for his first three innings against his former teammates. But in the fourth, things unraveled a bit with an RBI double from Matt Holliday and a run-scoring sacrifice fly from Garrett Atkins. Then a single from Ryan Spilborghs extended the lead to 3-0 in the fifth.

But on the whole, the former Colorado ace pitched well, yielding three runs on five hits in seven innings and breaking the 100-pitch mark for a second consecutive start. He took the loss, however, because of the offense's off night.

"I felt like I threw the ball well," Jennings said. "I felt good tonight. Tonight I had command and the sharpness on my pitches that I had all year last year, so it was definitely a good sign. I felt like it was jumping out of my hand a little better, and I had a sharper breaking ball."

The offense gave him no support. Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee each drew walks in the first inning, but were stranded when Friday's hero, Mark Loretta, flied out weakly to right.

"We had a couple of walks in the first and we might've had the guy on the ropes," Garner said of Francis. "I didn't think he was overpowering. We just didn't hit the ball."

The Astros' best chance to score came in the fifth, when Jennings drew a one-out walk and Craig Biggio singled to left to put two on with one out for the heart of the Houston order. But Hunter Pence fouled out and Berkman struck out to end the threat.

"I think we hit some balls hard that got caught," right fielder Chris Burke said. "I think [Francis] had tremendous command of his offspeed stuff. He was throwing sliders for strikes and changeups in hitters' counts. He's a different look, being a tall lefty. You don't see pitchers like that every day."

Francis was outstanding on the night, using his offspeed pitches to baffle Houston's hitters. He finished with seven shutout innings, yielding just three hits.

Coincidentally, the last time the Astros were shut out by the Rockies before Saturday was last May, when Jennings threw a complete-game shutout against his current team, striking out nine.

Biggio was the only Astros hitter to record multiple hits, going 2-for-4 and raising his career hit total to 3,004. He's now just three hits shy of Al Kaline for 25th place on the all-time hits list.

As he has throughout the series, Biggio received standing ovations from the sellout crowd of 43,071 at Minute Maid Park before each at-bat, and tipped his batting helmet to the fans before his first at-bat.

Other than the Biggio moments, however, the only emotion on Saturday came when Colorado second baseman Kaz Matsui bobbled Lee's routine grounder in the sixth and let it get behind him. But Lee wasn't hustling down the first-base line, and ended up thrown out by several steps at first.

"You don't see as many lefties," said Burke in an effort to explain the offense's poor night. "When a lefty throws, it makes Lance [Berkman] turn around and bat right-handed. It changes our lineup a little bit because Lance doesn't [regularly] get the at-bats from the right side, and that changes the middle of our order."

Colorado added two insurance runs in the eighth against Matt Albers on an RBI single from Atkins and an RBI double from Brad Hawpe.

Ben DuBose is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.