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Bullpen falters as Astros settle for split

Bullpen falters as Astros settle for split

LOS ANGELES -- For the most part, the Astros weren't content to leave Dodger Stadium with a split of the four-game series against the team with the best record in baseball, and they had every reason not to be satisfied.

The Astros squandered an early three-run lead and were victimized by two more errors by a pitcher and the bats of Dodgers hitters Matt Kemp and Brad Ausmus and lost their second in a row, 4-3, on Sunday afternoon.

Kemp, who went 3-for-3 and scored all four Los Angeles runs, smacked a two-out home run in the eighth inning off reliever LaTroy Hawkins to break a 3-3 tie. The loss dropped Houston four games behind first-place St. Louis in the National League Central, with the Cardinals coming to Minute Maid Park for a three-game series starting Monday.

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"We played pretty good baseball while we were here and didn't get the results, but the series is over with now and we don't play them again," Hawkins (1-4) said. "We have to get ready for our division. That's where the true test is going to come, in our division."

Houston outscored the Dodgers, 16-10, in the series and held slugger Manny Ramirez in check in his first appearance at home since returning from his 50-game suspension. Ramirez went 0-for-2 with two strikeouts in the game and was 2-for-14 in the series with five strikeouts.

Still, that was little consolation for the Astros, who fell back to the .500 mark at 46-46.

"They've got a good ballclub and have the best record in baseball, but I'd be lying to you if I said I wasn't a little disappointed we played .500 ball against them," third baseman Geoff Blum said. "Granted, we only scored three runs today, but with how our bullpen's been pitching, we thought we had a pretty good chance at it. It's tough to win a big league ballgame scoring three runs."

Astros starter Russ Ortiz, who criticized manager Cecil Cooper for taking him out of the game after only three innings in his previous start July 9, was allowed to navigate his way through six innings on a hot Sunday, allowing five hits and two runs. He's winless in seven starts since June 11.

"I thought Russ threw the ball well," Cooper said. "He did a good job in some tough circumstances with how hot it was and stuff today. I thought he did a real good job and made some big pitches, particularly in the third and fifth innings, it really stretched him. He hung in and did a real good job for us."

Ortiz left with a 3-2 lead and turned the ball over to reliever Alberto Arias, who came into the game riding a streak of 21 1/3 consecutive innings without allowing a run. Arias pitched well, but he made a pair of costly errors that led to a run.

With Kemp on second base and one out, Arias caught a relay throw at first base and dropped the ball just as he stepped on the bag for what would have been an easy out. Kemp scored moments later when Arias fielded Rafael Furcal's grounder and mishandled the ball while looking to throw home.

"When he hit the ball I went to throw to home plate, but I can't catch the ball," Arias said.

The errors were the second and third by a Houston pitcher in two games. Astros starter Mike Hampton made an error in Saturday's game that led to a Dodgers run.

"We had a perfect setup with Arias to go in for us in the seventh and he's been pretty solid," Cooper said. "He just mishandled a couple of balls, and those things happen sometimes. He just muffed two balls. I thought he tried to hurry on the throw and sometimes things happen like that."

The Astros took a 3-0 lead in the third inning against Dodgers starter Hiroki Kuroda on a two-out RBI single by Carlos Lee and a two-run home run to right field by Blum, who has 25 RBIs in his past 34 games.

Ortiz held the top four hitters in the Dodgers' lineup to no hits in 11 at-bats, striking out Ramirez twice in two at-bats. The bottom of the order hurt Ortiz, specifically Ausmus, who had RBI doubles in the third and fifth innings to cut the lead to 3-2.

Ausmus, who signed with the Dodgers for 2009 after playing the previous eight seasons in Houston, doubled over the head of Hunter Pence in right field in the third and into the gap in left-center in the fifth. He's 5-for-9 with two doubles, a homer and three RBIs in his past three starts.

"I think Hunter must have been playing right behind [Jeff] Keppinger at second base because I didn't hit it that well and it went over his head," Ausmus said. "The other one was the same thing. [Michael] Bourn was playing me to right-center, which was normal, and Lee was playing me straight up, so for a lot of players that ball gets caught because they don't have such a shift on in the outfield."

Brian McTaggart 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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