No holiday sweep treat for Astros
Philly long-ball barrage breaks open game in middle innings
HOUSTON -- In the midst of a homestand defined by big hits and come-from-behind victories, the Astros finally ran into a game where that one crucial hit never came.
Despite having several opportunities to break the game open offensively, Astros hitters couldn't execute with runners in scoring position against Phillies starter Cole Hamels. The left-hander pitched seven strong innings to keep his team in front and the Philadelphia offense piled it on late Wednesday, leading to an 8-3 Phillies victory in front of 39,993 fans at Minute Maid Park.
The loss snapped a three-game winning streak for the Astros.
"We had some missed opportunities," manager Phil Garner said. "We did a nice job of getting into situations, but [Hamels] is an All-Star for a reason. He's pretty tough, and he buckled down and made some pretty good pitches."
Although they were down for much of the game, the Astros had their chances.
In the fifth, trailing, 3-1, Eric Munson and Chris Burke each singled, and the Astros loaded the bases with two outs when Hunter Pence reached on an error. But Lance Berkman, as he has for much of the season batting right-handed, couldn't come through. He popped up the first pitch from Hamels behind the plate to end the inning.
In the sixth, Mark Loretta and Eric Bruntlett singled to bring the tying run to the plate in Munson, who had already homered earlier in the game. But after working the count to 3-2, home plate umpire Lance Barksdale made a critical strike three call on a fastball that appeared to be above the letters, retiring Munson to end the threat.
"When I saw the pitch out of his hand, I thought it was high," Munson said. "But it happens. It caught me off-guard."
Munson had already begin his jog to first base when Barksdale rung him up.
"Man, that looked like a tough pitch," Burke said. "That looked like he had something there and we had the bases loaded, but the umpire didn't see it his way."
When asked if "tough pitch" meant a ball, Burke said: "Yeah. That's baseball lingo for tough pitch."
It's the second straight game where a miscue from Barksdale proved critical. On Tuesday, his missed call at first base (ruling Carlos Lee safe) on what should've been a 6-4-3 double play from Lee kept the Astros alive and allowed the tying run to score. They later won in 13 innings.
In the seventh, Pence started a two-out rally by lining a single to left. Then, when Berkman hit a slow ground ball to second, Pence's speed proved critical when he barely beat Utley to the second base bag to keep the inning alive and bring Carlos Lee to the plate as the tying run. But Lee flied out to deep right, and the Phillies put the game away in the eighth.
"I've never seen a pitcher that threw two pitches that looked so much alike that are totally different," Pence said. "His fastball and changeup, there's absolutely nothing different [in the delivery]. It's really deceptive. He's got great stuff."
Hamels scattered eight hits and walked none over his seven innings, allowing just one run. He struck out eight.
"I would say we did a pretty good job [offensively]," Garner said. "Yes, we left 11 on base, and those are opportunities, but I have to give [Hamels] some credit."
Starter Chris Sampson (6-6) took the loss, going 6 1/3 innings and yielding four runs on eight hits. The Phillies took control off him in the middle innings via the long ball. With the game tied, 1-1, entering the fifth, Wes Helms and Jimmy Rollins each went deep. Then, Chase Utley led off with a triple in the sixth and scored on an RBI single from Ryan Howard.
"The balls caught a little too much of the plate and weren't exactly where I wanted to throw them," Sampson said of his mistake pitches in the middle innings. "The Phillies are a real good hitting team, and when balls find too much of the plate, that's what they do."
After the Astros missed in their opportunities to come closer, the Phillies broke things open in the eighth against Mark McLemore. Utley led off the inning with a double and Howard followed with a homer to the right-field bullpen. Two batters later, Pat Burrell smashed a towering home run above the Crawford Boxes. Finally, a wild pitch from McLemore allowed the fourth run of the inning to score.
Munson produced most of the highlights for the Astros offense, smacking a line-drive opposite-field home run off Hamels in the third to tie the game at 1 and adding a sacrifice fly to deep center in the eighth. Pence ripped his 11th home run of the season in the ninth.
"I felt good at the plate and saw the ball pretty well," Munson said. "You can't really explain it. Some guys see other [pitchers] better than others. There's certain guys you can see the ball real well off of and some you don't."
But with the exception of Munson, the rest of the Astros' lineup seemed baffled by Hamels' pitch selection.
"We didn't get a win, so anything I did was pretty much irrelevant," Pence said. "It's disappointing not to put up the runs, but sometimes it's tough. That guy pitched a heck of a game, and we have to tip our hat to him."
Ben DuBose is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.