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Offense struggles as Astros fall

Offense struggles as Astros fall

HOUSTON -- For the second night in a row, the Astros' offense was not much of a factor against the Milwaukee Brewers, and as a result, the home team lost again on Tuesday, this time by a score of 9-1.

The Brewers moved into a tie for first place in the National League Central, while the Astros remain mired in the cellar, 13 1/2 games out.

The Astros may have thought they lucked out when ace righty Ben Sheets left after one inning with tightness in his left hamstring, but they were unable to do much against Claudio Vargas. Vargas pitched four scoreless frames against an Astros club that mustered just four hits all night.

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"We thought we caught a break," manager Cecil Cooper said, referring to Sheets' injury. "But hey, two hits in eight innings from the bullpen? We didn't swing too good tonight."

The Astros scored their lone run in the first when Josh Anderson led off with a double off Sheets, moved to third on Craig Biggio's sacrifice fly and scored on Lance Berkman's base hit to left.

With Vargas on board, the Astros knocked two hits in the second and walked once in the third. Vargas retired the final seven batters he faced to cap his night.

The Astros did not record a hit after the second inning. They also were unable to capitalize on leadoff walks in the seventh and eighth innings. After pounding the Pirates for 24 runs over the weekend, the Astros have scored exactly one in two games against the Brewers.

But there was a glimmer of optimism after this game. On paper, Felipe Paulino's stat line left a bit to be desired, but the right-hander received high marks from his skipper and catcher Brad Ausmus.

Paulino held the Brewers to one hit in the first three innings, but he was hit hard in the fourth frame. He yielded a one-out triple to Ryan Braun and an RBI single to Prince Fielder, followed by Corey Hart's ground-rule double. Paulino intentionally walked Gabe Gross, a move that backfired when Johnny Estrada launched a grand slam to give the Brewers a 5-1 lead.

Still, Ausmus heaped praise on the hard-throwing Paulino, as well as reliever Dennis Sarfate, who struck out five in two innings.

"He's obviously got a good arm," Ausmus said of Paulino. "His other pitches were pitches that he can use effectively. His slider, when it's thrown properly, is a strikeout pitch. It's nice to see guys throwing for us like we've seen from some of the other teams. Like Dennis -- throwing 95, 96, 97 [mph], even getting up there around 99.

"That's where pitching has gone in baseball. The velocities have climbed up in the last decade. It's good to see strong arms. Maybe raw, but strong. It's a bright beacon for the future."

"I thought Paulino pitched pretty well," Cooper said. "The first three innings he was really good. Even the inning where he gave up the runs, I thought he pitched well. He battled."

And Sarfate?

"My goodness, we have to see more of that," Cooper said. "That was real, real good. We're going to try to get him out there again as soon as we can."

Paulino has been mostly a starter during his young professional career, and although he has yet to receive any Triple-A seasoning, he could be a candidate for the Astros' rotation next year. But he's still learning, and as is the case with any young pitcher, he's going to experience his share of lapses.

"When you pitch in the Major Leagues you can't make mistakes," he said. "You have to study the hitters all the time. [The Brewers have] good hitters so you have to be perfect every time.

"Estrada hit the ball well. One mistake, and he hit a home run."

After Paulino gave up the grand slam, Cooper offered words of encouragement.

"Cooper said, 'No matter about that, just compete. Compete in the game,'" Paulino said. "Throw the ball down. You'll see results after that."

Ausmus echoed the vote of confidence.

"He was throwing well," he said. "One pitch completely changed the game. It's a learning process, especially when you're a young pitcher. I really liked what I saw from him today."

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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