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Astros waste strong start from Paulino

Paulino hung with tough-luck loss

HOUSTON -- Only a few weeks after Astros general manager Ed Wade issued somewhat of an ultimatum to Felipe Paulino by saying he needed to take advantage of every chance he gets to step onto the mound, the right-hander has rewarded management's confidence in him.

Paulino made his second start since returning to the rotation and pitched well Tuesday, but he was again the victim of his team's offensive ineptitude, as the Atlanta Braves snapped the Astros' four-game winning streak with a 2-1 win at Minute Maid Park.

"This is baseball, and sometimes that happens," said Paulino, who gave up four hits and two runs and struck out six batters in six innings. The Astros have been held scoreless while he's been on the mound in his past two starts.

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Coming off a four-game sweep over the defending World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies that tied a season-high four consecutive wins, the Astros still can't figure out a way to piece together five consecutive victories. They are 0-4 when riding a four-game winning streak.

"It is kind of frustrating, but we had chance in the ninth and the sixth and seventh," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "We had chances. All you can do is kind of set it up and have an opportunity."

Paulino (2-8), who gave up just a two-run homer to Derrek Lee in the six innings he threw in Wednesday's 2-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs, gave up solo homers Tuesday to Adam LaRoche in the second inning and Nate McLouth in the fifth inning. In his past two starts, he's allowed four earned runs and struck out 13 in 12 innings.

"That's what I was looking for," Paulino said. "I want to be consistent every start, game-to-game. I tried to do the best in me, and today I made some good pitches and worked a lot in the first couple of innings, but I made adjustments. You see what happened. I went six innings."

Other than the changeup to LaRoche and the slider to McLouth, Cooper was pleased with Paulino's performance.

"If he buries those pitches and gets them down a little bit, it's probably a different story," Cooper said. "I thought he did a real good job. It looked to me he was rushing a little bit early and was really kind of jumping out at the hitters a little bit, but once [pitching coach] Dewey Robinson went out there in the second inning, it looked like he settled down more. Heck, we haven't scored a run for the guy in the last two ballgames, and we have to figure out how we're going to do that."

The Astros managed little offensively in the first five innings against Braves starter Javier Vazquez (12-9), who sent down 15 of the first 17 batters he faced. He walked the bases loaded with two outs in the sixth, but Miguel Tejada's sharp grounder glanced off Vazquez's glove and toward third base, where Chipper Jones barehanded it and threw out Tejada to end the inning.

"When I hit the ball, I was thinking the ball was going to get past the pitcher," Tejada said. "He did a great job to knock it down and do what he did."

Vazquez allowed the first two runners to reach in the seventh, but struck out Darin Erstad and Michael Bourn swinging to strand runners at second and third.

"I was looking for the strikeouts," Vazquez said. "I've played with [Erstad, with the Chicago White Sox in 2007], and he's always been a tough out. He's a tough guy to strike out. I had to make good pitches, and fortunately I did."

Carlos Lee hit into a double play to end the eighth, and the Astros had the winning run at the plate in the ninth.

Tejada tripled to start the final frame against closer Rafael Soriano and scored on a single by Hunter Pence, bringing Geoff Blum to the plate. Blum hit into a 4-6-3 double play to erase Pence, but Chris Coste kept the inning going with a single. Soriano got Aaron Boone to fly out to end the game.

The Astros were 1-for-5 with runners in scoring position and stranded eight on base.

"Tonight was one of those nights we couldn't get a big hit," Cooper said. "We had two or three opportunities, and we've got to deal with situational hitting a little bit better and cash in on at least one or two of those opportunities. [If we do that,] it's a different ballgame, and Paulino might even still be pitching. It was kind of tough for us tonight to put anything in play when we needed it. That stuff will come back to haunt you, and tonight it did."

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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