Houston's Bud Norris was trying to shake off a series of rough starts and found himself pitching deep into counts from the beginning, unable to pitch beyond the fifth inning once again. San Diego's Mat Latos threw 10 pitches or fewer in four of his first six innings and was hardly challenged.
Latos became the latest in a growing line of pitchers to dominate the Astros this season, throwing a career-high eight scoreless innings and striking out a career-high nine batters in San Diego's 7-0 shutout of Houston at Minute Maid Park.
"I felt I threw the ball pretty well," Norris said. "Once again, I got a lot of deep counts, which always hurts, but as far as I was concerned, I was down in the strike zone all night and threw the ball pretty well. A couple of pitches can go the wrong way, and that's what happened, and you have to give them credit for it."
Norris (1-4) gave up five hits, including two home runs, and five runs (four earned) and struck out seven batters, which only added to the 94-pitch total he needed to get through four innings. Despite enjoying a 1-2-3 first inning, each Padres batter worked the count full, and Norris wound up throwing 21 pitches in the frame.
"His location got him in trouble from the get-go," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "He went 3-2 on all those hitters in the first inning, and it really came back to haunt him a little bit later. He gave up five hits, four of them for extra-base hits, and when you're having problems locating your pitches, you give up extra-base hits, and that compounds the issue."
Norris' ERA ballooned to 7.52, and he has allowed 32 hits and 22 earned runs in 26 1/3 innings. But Mills said he will remain in the starting rotation.
"We talked about it in the dugout after we took him out," Mills said. "It's a situation we're going to keep working with him. He's got the stuff, and I know you've heard me say it again and again. I've told him that I still think he's got the stuff, but we have to get it corralled and put in all in place."
Instead of Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, Roy Halladay or Derek Lowe -- all of whom have beaten Houston this year -- baffling the Astros hitters, this night belonged to Latos, who retired 24 of the 26 batters he faced. A two-out single by Pedro Feliz in the second and infield single by Carlos Lee in the seventh were the only blemishes against Latos.
"It wasn't like I felt like we had absolutely no chance, even though he threw eight innings and gave up two hits, but the results are what they are," Lance Berkman said. "He obviously pitched a good game, and we didn't have very good at-bats for the most part against him, and I think it was a combination of those two things. It's just ugly."
The Astros (9-20) have been shut out five times in 29 games this season and twice in the past four games. They have scored two or fewer runs 16 times, and they saw their team batting average dip to .227.
"There's all kind of factors that converge to create this snowball that's rolling downhill right now," Berkman said. "Guys want to get something done, so they try harder and do worse, and then the guy behind them tries to pick them up and they do worse.
"And the pitcher senses we're not swinging the bats well, so that makes him more confident. That's why it's really difficult to get out of a team slump like this. Guys are going to have to shake it off and really refocus and go out there and compete, and that's all you can do."
Latos threw nine pitches in the first inning, 15 in the second and fourth, and 10 in the third, fifth and sixth.
"There's no doubt we were making some quick outs," Mills said. "Whether you want to say there were adjustments or his pitches were tough to pick up, he had some pretty good bite on some of those sliders and that changeup he was throwing. He also threw 94, 95 [mph], too."
Mills suggested Norris might have to back off his mid-90s-mph stuff in an effort to locate his pitches better.
"With his stuff, he ought to be able to throw 94 and locate," Mills said. "We have to locate first and go from there."
Norris retired the first four batters he faced, three on strikeouts, before Will Venable singled with one out and eventually scored on an error by shortstop Tommy Manzella. Scott Hairston led off the second with a homer to left, and Chase Headley hit a two-run homer later in the inning to make it 4-0.
Hairston added a two-run homer in the eighth off Wilton Lopez, putting San Diego ahead, 7-0.
"I know he's dwelling on two pitches he would like back," Astros catcher Kevin Cash said. "I hope he takes some things as a positive that he did locate the fastball better. He's frustrated, we're frustrated, and we have to get back to work in the bullpen, and hopefully his next start will be better."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less