HOUSTON -- The Astros wanted desperately to pull this one out for starting pitcher Jordan Lyles, who may have just turned a corner Wednesday afternoon by giving them an encouraging outing which would have been good enough to win most of the time.
It was the kind of performance the Astros have been waiting patiently to see from the 21-year-old righty, who carried a shutout into the fifth inning in his two previous outings and quickly unraveled when things started to go awry.
Despite throwing a season-high seven innings and allowing just three hits and two runs, Lyles was victimized by another poor offensive performance and suffered his third consecutive loss in the Astros' 2-1 setback to the Royals at Minute Maid Park.
"I've been looking for an outing where I can turn that corner and not look back, and hopefully this will be it," Lyles said. "That's what I'm striving for."
The Astros, who scored nine runs while beating the Royals in the series opener on Monday, were held to one run in the following two games and went a combined 1-for-18 with runners in scoring position (1-for-12 on Wednesday) and stranded 20 on base (11 on Wednesday).
"You've got to get big hits to score runs, especially when you drive the ball like we did today," said Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie, who made an error in the sixth that led to the decisive run. "You've got to get big hits in situations where you have the opportunity, and we didn't do it today."
Royals starter Bruce Chen (6-6) held Houston to five hits, one run and two walks in 5 2/3 innings while punching out six. Kansas City relievers combined for eight more strikeouts, giving the Royals 14 K's. Reliever Kelvin Herrera struck out all four batters he faced, striking out the side in the seventh.
Chen held Houston scoreless through five innings, but the Astros had several chances later in the game to push across some runs.
Jordan Schafer walked and scored to start the sixth to cut the Royals' lead to 2-1, but the Astros stranded runners at second and third when Chris Snyder struck out. Snyder slammed his bat into the ground in frustration.
"When I come up at second and third in the sixth inning and had the little snap there after the punchout, that's not pressing, that's just being in the game and wanting to come through right there," Snyder said. "When the guy I was catching all game has been doing what he's doing, you definitely want to do something for him."
The Astros had two runners on after one out in the eighth and couldn't score, and in the ninth had runners at first and third with one out. But Kansas City closer Jonathan Broxton struck out Brian Bixler and got Schafer to fly out to end the game.
"In some key situations, we weren't able to find the hole with runners in scoring position, there's no doubt," manager Brad Mills said.
Lyles sent down 12 of the first 13 batters he faced before giving up a leadoff double to Mike Moustakas in the fifth. Moustakas went to third on a groundout and scored on a ground ball to short by Brayan Pena, putting the Royals ahead, 1-0.
Alex Gordon tripled with one out in the sixth inning, and the Astros brought the infield onto the grass to try to prevent the run from scoring. Yuniesky Betancourt hit a grounder right at Lowrie at short, but it clipped his glove for an error that allowed the run to score.
"I just kind of got caught in between," Lowrie said. "It was a chopper and I tried to come get it and pick it on a short hop and it just didn't get there. So it wasn't a particularly challenging play. I just got caught in between and wasn't able to get that short hop."
The Royals had runners breaking from third base on contact both times they scored.
"We gambled both times and luckily we scored both runs," manager Ned Yost said. "It was the difference in the game. We didn't have good swings on [Lyles] all day long. He was pretty impressive."
Lyles, who made 15 starts for the Astros last year at 20 years old in his Major League debut, trotted out a new curveball grip in the spring that he hoped would pay dividends. He scrapped it a couple of days ago when he noticed teammate Wandy Rodriguez, who has one of the better curveballs in baseball, getting great results with a different grip while playing catch.
"He's got good spin on it, so I walked over to Wandy and started talking to him and seeing how he gripped it, and what he was thinking about when he was throwing it," Lyles said. "I went with that today and I thought it took pretty well."
The challenge now for Lyles is to build upon what he did Wednesday.
"I know I can pitch up here and get outs and previous outings haven't shown that, but I have confidence in myself and I'm looking forward to the next outing," he said. "I took a leap forward today. I know we got the loss, but we're going to put things together soon and we're going to get on a hot streak."