HOUSTON -- Astros starter Fernando Abad has put up pretty good numbers as a starter in the Minor Leagues, and his eye-opening winter league performance on the mound prior to the 2011 season had him in the mix for a rotation spot heading into that season.
The Astros have yet to see Abad have that kind of success as a starter at the Major League level, and on Wednesday he struggled once again and suffered his fourth loss in as many starts in a 5-1 setback to the Cubs in their final National League appearance at Minute Maid Park.
Abad only gave up one run and four hits in 3 1/3 innings, but the Astros' punchless offense managed only six hits, including five singles, and never had a runner reaching second base until the eighth inning when Brandon Barnes doubled and scored.
"We were no-hit going into the fifth inning, and their pitcher threw well for them today," Astros interim manager Tony DeFrancesco said. "He mixed pitches in and kind of dominated us for a while. He threw a lot of off-speed pitches that were cutting in on our hitters and we just didn't make the adjustment there. You've got to give the kid some credit."
Cubs starter Travis Wood allowed one run in 7 2/3 innings and carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning before Justin Maxwell hit a leadoff single. He improved to 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA and 11 strikeouts in his last two starts.
"I've been able to mix my pitches up and keep them off balance," Wood said. "The defense has been outstanding behind me. [Left fielder Alfonso] Soriano made another outstanding catch [at the wall in the fifth] and we were able to double them up. It's been going good for me."
The red-hot Phillies, who have won eight in a row to get back in the playoff race, come to town for a four-game series Thursday against a Houston team that managed three runs and 16 hits in the three games against the Cubs.
"We've got some work to do offensively," DeFrancesco said. "We've got a tough series coming in against Philly. They've been playing well and we're going to have to grind it out the rest of the way."
Abad, who was 15-11 with a 2.37 ERA in 48 starts in the Minor Leagues, is 0-4 with a 5.08 ERA in four career starts in the Major Leagues. He's yet to make it out of the fifth inning in any of his four starts.
"It was tough to watch him early," DeFrancesco said. "There were a lot of deep counts and he fell behind and didn't seem he could locate his fastball early, and it was time for him to come out of the game when the situation came."
The Astros are committed to Abad in the rotation for the time being as they employ a six-man rotation. The Astros used six relief pitchers Wednesday after using five relievers in the first two games of the series against the Cubs. No Astros starting pitcher worked past the fifth inning in the series.
"Abad is going to have to battle," DeFrancesco said. "We're trying to get him to make quality pitches and he's working hard in his bullpens and his sides and he's just got to bring it across the lines. One thing that's happening if he's not getting deep in the game, you see how many bullpen guys I'm using in a normal game. I'm using four or five relievers and sometimes more, and that's what happens when the starters don't get out of the third inning."
Abad was pulled after two of the first three hitters reached in the fourth inning, and reliever Chuckie Fick got three consecutive outs before Soriano launched a solo homer into the Crawford Boxes in left field to make it 2-0.
"He's the only guy in the lineup that could really hurt us, that's a veteran presence in their lineup," DeFrancesco said. "[Fick] just threw him a get-me-over breaking ball, and he hit it up in the stands. That's what we're going to have to discuss again tomorrow."
Soriano singled home a run in the seventh off Fernando Rodriguez, and the game was halted briefly in the eighth when a line drive off the bat of Dave Sappelt struck reliever Mickey Storey in the side of the head. He wound up with bruises to his face and hand but was not thought to be seriously injured.
Sappelt wound up scoring on a double by Anthony Recker.
After Fernando Martinez hit an RBI single to score Barnes in the eighth, the Astros proceeded to load the bases with two outs for J.D. Martinez, who struck out swinging to end the team's only real scoring chance.
"Those are the opportunities I wait for all game and I love it and live for it," Martinez said. "I felt like I tried to do too much. I took a little bit too much of an aggressive swing at all of them and I was trying to hit the ball 500 feet instead of just hit it, and I think that's where I got myself in trouble."