HOUSTON -- Astros setup man Wilton Lopez, who's struggled to start the season, will be examined by team doctors after showing up at the ballpark Thursday with soreness in his right elbow. Lopez last week was diagnosed with neuritis, a nerve irritation, but was given the go-ahead to pitch through it.
Manager Brad Mills said Lopez doesn't have as much movement on his ball and was taking longer to get loose. Lopez, who has a 7.71 ERA in six appearances, was unavailable to pitch Thursday because of his recent workload.
"We'll get him looked at and respond accordingly," general manager Ed Wade said. "Hopefully it's nothing more than it was before, but it behooves us to take advantage of a really good medical team to find out."
Lopez went 5-2 with a 2.96 ERA in 68 appearances for the Astros last year and came into this season as the setup man. He walked only five batters last year and struck out 50, ranking third among relief pitchers in the Majors in strikeout ratio.
"The guy was pretty automatic all last season for us, and the eighth inning was in good hands as far as we were concerned," Wade said.
Mills simply riding hot bat in starting Downs
HOUSTON -- Astros third baseman Chris Johnson, who missed Wednesday's game after he was struck in the arm by a pitch Tuesday, wasn't in the lineup Thursday, even though he was well enough to play. Matt Downs made his second consecutive start at third, but manager Brad Mills was quick to remind reporters Johnson remains his starter.
"He's our third baseman," he said. "He's going to be back in there [Friday]. There's no confidence lost in him whatsoever. When you're going through a time where it's kind of tough to find some runs someplace and one guy is swinging the bat pretty well, we're going to try to ride that horse for another day.
"It's nothing against C.J. I had a talk with him, and I think he understood it and there's absolutely no issue beyond that."
Johnson, who entered Thursday hitting .189 (7-for-37), said his arm feels fine.
"I talked to the skipper this morning and told him everything was fine," he said.
Downs homered and doubled in his start Wednesday night to raise his average to .417 (5-for-12) in limited action.
"Downs has been doing some pretty good things," Mills said. "Any more [time out of the lineup] would be a detriment to C.J., and that's not the issue. This is not a message sent to him or anything else. This is to see if Downs can keep swinging the bat well."
Pence has strong words for Astros' struggles
HOUSTON -- With the Astros entering play Thursday with a 3-9 record and still looking for consecutive victories and their first series win, right fielder Hunter Pence made his feelings clear about the lackluster performances.
"It's not acceptable," he said. "We definitely have goals to get a lot better than where we are, and we've got to continue to learn from our defeats and build off what went wrong. We know we're a good team. We believe in ourselves and we have to go out here and continue to play. We're going to try to win today and move forward."
Pence has emerged as one of the team's leaders in the wake of the last year's trades of Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman, so his words carry plenty of weight in the clubhouse.
"Unacceptable is a strong word, but it's not the wrong word because you don't want the reverse to be said," general manager Ed Wade said. "You don't want the players to accept getting off to slow starts. That's exactly what you would want the players' mindset to be. We've got the ability to get better, but nobody's going to park in neutral and wait for us to get better."
Pence believes the Astros have too much talent to be struggling as badly as they are.
"We're not happy with where we're at, and we're going to continue to go out here and work to get to where we want to be, and that's to win the division and be in the playoffs and have something to hang our hat on at the end of the year," he said.
Astros generally in favor of expanded replay
HOUSTON -- The possibility of expanding instant replay in baseball next season to include trapped balls and fair-or-foul rulings was met with a generally favorable response in the Astros clubhouse. The Associated Press reported Thursday that Major League Baseball was leaning toward expanding replay for 2012.
"Getting the call right is extremely important," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "The process to get the call right, I'm not sure exactly what the best way to go about it [is]. I think we have to look at ways to get the call right. That's what I'm concerned with."
Astros outfielder Hunter Pence is in favor of more replay. Baseball began using replay late in the 2008 season to determine disputed home runs.
"There have been some trapped balls you know weren't caught and sometimes are missed, and you see them on the replay and it's troubling at times," he said. "I doubt it's going to be something that's going to just absolutely make the game way too long. It makes you feel better when you go home and know justice was served. We have the best umpires you can get."
Third baseman Chris Johnson was worried about replay's effect on the pace of games.
"I think the game's pretty good right now," he said. "Just as long as it doesn't slow the game down a little bit. Every time you have to go inside and check a home run, it takes a little while, and if you're doing that three or four times a game, it's going to slow the game down and some fans are going to lose interest. That's kind of how I feel about it. But if it helps me get a hit here or there, I'll take it."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.