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Game gets out of hand early for Astros

Seven-run first does in Astros

ATLANTA -- The Astros' starting pitching let them down again on Wednesday, knocking the club out of the game and putting an unnecessary strain on a bullpen that has been working overtime in the last few days.

The Astros lost, 12-3, due largely to Wandy Rodriguez's first inning of work. The left-hander allowed seven runs and gave up eight overall.

Astros starting pitchers have allowed 36 runs over the last five games, spanning 21 2/3 innings. That gives them a collective 14.95 ERA. It would probably be higher if not for Roy Oswalt, the only starter to have turned in a respectable outing in the last week.

In the last three games, Astros starters have allowed 24 runs.

"It's a little embarrassing," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "The pitching staff and the catchers are embarrassed by what's happened in the last three games. But you have to put it behind you, because there's nothing you can do about it.

"We were terrible Sunday, we were terrible Tuesday, we were terrible today. None of those have any bearing on Thursday's game, other than the fact we have to be more careful with the bullpen arms."

Despite posting a 6-2 record with a 1.76 ERA at home, Rodriguez has fallen dramatically short of enjoying any level of success away from Minute Maid Park. His four-inning stint Wednesday dropped his road record to 1-8, while his ERA climbed from 7.43 to 8.16.

At home against the Padres last week, Rodriguez allowed one run over seven innings. In his previous home start against the Mets, just before the All-Star break, he threw a four-hit shutout. That came on the heels of seven shutout innings against the Rockies, also at home.

In his last three road starts, however, Rodriguez has a 13.87 ERA, having allowed 19 earned runs over 12 1/3 innings.

"I don't know why that happens," Rodriguez said. "I feel good. My arm feels great. I don't know why that happens. I don't know."

Rodriguez faced six batters and allowed three runs before he recorded the first out on Wednesday. The Braves sent 11 men to the plate and scored seven times, thanks in part to four walks off the Houston left-hander, two with the bases loaded.

Manager Phil Garner and Ausmus agreed that Rodriguez wasn't missing by a lot, but as Ausmus pointed out, most of the left-hander's pitches in that inning were not strikes.

"Don't misunderstand me, they were balls," Ausmus said. "They were not on the plate. But it's not like he was missing by a ton. Just a little bit off the inside, a little bit off the outside. You keep getting behind guys and walking guys, it's a bad recipe."

Said Garner: "What's disappointing, again, is he couldn't get the breaking ball over early. The second and third innings he was a little bit better but he couldn't get his offspeed pitches over the plate. It's awful hard to pitch when you have to be perfect with your fastball, particularly when you're falling behind."

Braves starter Buddy Carlyle exited early with a hyperextended right elbow, but he had few difficulties during his five innings against the Astros. A mental edge likely contributed to his solid performance.

"When a guy's got a big old lead, he's comfortable," Garner said. "He's making his pitches, he's not having to worry. When he has to make a pitch, he just throws it down the middle of the plate. We hit a couple balls decent and got some runs back on the board, but the bottom line is, when a guy's got a big lead, and it's early in the ballgame, it's a whole lot easier to pitch."

The Astros have had no such luxury. With the starting staff contributing so few innings, the bullpen has worked overtime lately. Matt Albers was forced to absorb multiple innings in this game, one day after struggling through one ineffective frame during the opener on Tuesday. This time, Albers yielded a three-run homer to Mark Teixeira, giving the Braves an 11-3 lead.

The 'pen has thrown 16 1/3 innings in the last three games. Cause for alarm?

"Not yet," Garner said. "I don't think we're in awful shape just yet. Keep this up, we will be."

Jason Jennings, Saturday's starter, threw the seventh frame. This outing, the first relief appearance of his career, was planned ahead of time. After throwing just 40 pitches Sunday, Jennings, who allowed 11 runs in two-thirds of an inning in his last outing, was looking for some extra work.

The fact that it spared the bullpen from throwing yet another inning was a bonus.

"I gave up a couple hits, a couple jam shots to right, but nothing to worry about," he said. "It's nice to get back out there, try to put [Sunday] behind me. I truly believe it was a fluke day, something I hope I never even see again, much less be a part of."

Jennings understands the importance of preserving the bullpen, something he and his fellow starters haven't done well lately.

"Even when you don't have your best stuff that day you always want to try to give six, seven innings, just to give those guys a break," he said. "There comes a time when they've got to run out there, three, four, five days in a row, if we're close in every ballgame. Whenever we get the chance, it's nice to stretch out and give them a break."

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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