HOUSTON -- The Astros received four quality starts during their expanded series with the Reds, and all they have to show for it is one win. Roy Oswalt, Wandy Rodriguez, Felipe Paulino and Mike Hampton provided more than enough to carry the Astros through the four-game homestand-opening set with Cincinnati, but only Rodriguez ended up in the win column. The rest disappeared into the land of the no-decision, due in part to an ineffective bullpen and an offense that hasn't come through with clutch hits at opportune times. Monday's 4-3 loss was yet another example. Hampton recovered from a shaky first inning to maintain the Reds, but the bullpen, led by Tim Byrdak and Geoff Geary, could not hold the 3-2 lead. Then the offense stumbled, and as a result, the Astros enter their upcoming three-game set with the National League West-leading Dodgers with a 4-9 record.
"It was one of those games," Hampton said. "But it was one that we feel -- I know I feel -- that slipped away." Two of the three losses were by a one- or two-run margin. "It stinks," Geoff Blum said. "Losing three of four, you don't have many of these four-game series. Losing the one game with Roy [in the opener] hurts. You hope for a split. It's a four-game series at home, and that's the part that hurts, knowing we have 10 games at home and we have a chance to take at least two in the first series." There are losses, and then there are crushing losses. Hunter Pence would probably agree this was the latter. The stage was perfectly set in the eighth inning, after Jason Michaels led off with a pinch-hit double off veteran reliever Arthur Rhodes. Michaels moved to third on a perfect bunt by Kazuo Matsui, and Rhodes followed that by walking Miguel Tejada. But Lance Berkman swung at the first pitch and flied out to shallow right, freezing Michaels at third. Carlos Lee walked, loading the bases for Pence, who worked the count full before looking at a called third strike. "He made a good pitch," Pence said. "He pounded me in, in, in, in, in. Looking at it in the box, you have a little bit of time to react, and I felt the ball was going to move down more than it did. He made a pitch. It was a tough at-bat, I put up a good at-bat. And he won." Pence is one of the few hitters who is having a good start to the season. He was hitting .302 entering the game and he had hits in two of his previous three at-bats. "We still haven't gotten the big hit," he said. "I've had a lot of opportunities, I think everyone has. Once again, we didn't get it done. "I'm going to be a winner. I'm going to find a way. In those times, I want to be up to bat. This time, I didn't get them, but tomorrow's a new day. This is where you find out what you're made of, when times get rough. It's still early, but we definitely have to catch some momentum, some intensity, and get those hits." The "big hit" has been a prominent topic of conversation throughout the first 13 games of the season. The Astros need them. They're just not delivering them. "I know I sound like a broken record," manager Cecil Cooper said. "We're still scratching, trying to get a big hit when we need one. And our bullpen, we need to tighten up and make some adjustments. We were in it and we just needed one big hit in particular and we just couldn't get it." Berkman's solo homer off Bronson Arroyo tied the game in the sixth, and Lee's homer put them ahead by a run. But a stumbling bullpen blew the lead in the next inning, after Geary allowed an infield hit and a walk and Byrdak yielded a two-run double to Joey Votto. "There isn't a single person here who isn't frustrated," Byrdak said. "We're going out and battling, we're not just getting the results that we want. We need to be winning ballgames. We're going out and competing and it's frustrating. The starters, going out and giving us quality starts like that, the bullpen, we have to do our jobs and keep the lead. Bottom line."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.