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Astros frustrated by loss to Nats

Astros frustrated by loss to Nats

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WASHINGTON -- Realistically, the Astros' season was lost quite a while ago. But even when they had a double-digit deficit heading into the All-Star break, they were flush with optimism after winning seven of 11 on their final homestand of the first half.

That hope has all but faded in the wake of their latest loss, a 4-3 defeat to the struggling Washington Nationals on Monday night at RFK Stadium.

If the Astros have been reduced to playing for pride, well, they're not doing that very well, either. Fresh off a deflating sweep by the surging Cubs, the Astros took their road show to the nation's capital, where they lost for the 54th time this year.

The Astros now have the third-worst record in the National League. They're ahead of only the Nationals, who are deeply buried in the somewhat powerful NL East, and the Reds, who have 55 losses on the year.

With 69 games remaining on the schedule, it's not looking good. The Astros' chances coming out of the All-Star break were slim at best. Starting the second half 0-4 is clearly a recipe for disaster.

"The last two games, I feel like we've played good ballgames; we've just come up a little bit short," Lance Berkman said. "That's going to happen to you over the course of a season. Unfortunately, we can ill afford to have it happen to us.

"That's why when you get off to such a bad start, it just makes things that much tougher. Invariably, you're going to play these games where they're Major League players and we're Major League players, and we play a good game and they come out a little bit on top."

In other words, this was just a plain old textbook loss. It wasn't an embarrassing one like their error-ridden debacle last Friday in Chicago, nor was it as infuriating as Sunday's finale in Chicago, when the Astros took an early five-run lead and quickly blew it.

This one was more conventional, between two evenly matched teams in a game decided by one home run.

Problem is, the Nationals were supposed to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 games under .500 at this point. The Astros' place in the standings has come as a surprise, at least to those who are paid to perform on the field night after night.

Woody Williams is as frustrated as anyone, and rightfully so. He's now 4-11 on the year after absorbing Monday's loss, a game that could have had a much different outcome if not for one towering three-run homer by cleanup hitter Dmitri Young that put the Nationals on top in the sixth frame.

Equally as maddening was the play just before the home run. Ryan Zimmerman rarely bunts, but he snuck one toward third that caught everyone off guard, including Morgan Ensberg, who made an accurate throw to first but not in time to nab Zimmerman.

"Not to many times a three-hole hitter can lay down a bunt," Williams said. "It was a good play on his part, and it brought their best hitter to the plate and I made a mistake. I left the ball out over the plate, a hanging curveball, and [Young] did what he's supposed to do with it.

"That's the story of my season. Three-run home run at a time when you can't really afford to do it. It's just frustrating."

The Astros had limited chances against left-hander Mike Bacsik and were somewhat unlucky when they did run into scoring opportunities. With the bases loaded in the fourth, Eric Bruntlett sent a somewhat soft grounder toward first, where Young made a running grab and threw to Bacsik, who beat Bruntlett to the bag by a step to end the inning.

"Dmitri made a nice play on the ball," manager Phil Garner said. "He makes a nice pickup on it. Bruntlett puts the ball in play and it looks like we might get something going and Dmitri made a nice play. He did a nice job."

At 15-32, the Astros have the worst road record in baseball. They've lost seven straight on the road and 13 of 15.

"I look at other teams we're playing, I look around the league and I really think we have a great nucleus of players, really good talent on our team," said Brad Lidge, who struck out two in the eighth and is ready to resume his closer's role. "We need to start doing whatever it takes and I'm not sure what that is. Obviously, we're in a situation now where it's got to start immediately."

The Astros took a 2-1 lead in the sixth behind an RBI single by Carlos Lee and a Mark Loretta sac fly. Lee knocked a solo homer off Jon Rauch in the eighth to bring the Astros within a run of tying the game, but Chad Cordero pitched a perfect ninth to secure his 16th save.

"We need to do a lot better job," Lidge said. "It's been real frustrating. We score six runs, they score seven. We score three, they score four. Whatever the reason, we just keep finding ourselves on the wrong end of close ballgames.

"That's what we have to do -- we have to start winning close ballgames. We've been playing pretty bad on the road. We need to start picking that up."

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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