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05/23/06 11:25 PM ET

Astros shut down by Nats

Nieve solid in defeat; Ensberg connects for 15th

WASHINGTON -- Although their offense generated very little, the Houston Astros still had a chance to win their game with the Nationals on Tuesday.

That is, until Daryle Ward stepped to the plate in the eighth inning.

All hopes were lost for late-game rally, thanks in part to the former Astro, whose towering upper-deck home run to right field contributed to the Nationals' 4-1 win.

"I think it went into the parking lot behind the stadium," Nats second baseman Jose Vidro observed. "I know it was far."

Ward's homer, hit off newly reinstated Russ Springer, increased the Nationals' lead to 3-1. Alfonso Soriano's equally impressive shot to center off Springer put the game out of reach for the Astros, who are 2-7 in their last nine road games.

Springer, coming off a four-game suspension and six-day layoff, retired the first two batters on fly balls to deep center. He wasn't so lucky with Ward and Soriano, and the reliever admitted that after nearly a week off, his mechanics were slightly skewed.

"I know what I'm doing wrong," Springer said. "I felt it as soon as I came in the dugout. [Catcher] Brad [Ausmus] told me the same thing that I was thinking. I was going too much side-to-side and it makes you jerk the fastball a little bit, leave it over the middle. My slider's a little too big and I left it over the middle."

The appearance was Springer's first since he was tossed from the game last Tuesday for hitting Barry Bonds with a pitch.

"I wanted to get back out there," Springer said. "Shake the rust off."

Until that inning, the Astros had a chance. Terrific performances by both starting pitchers -- Houston's Fernando Nieve and Washington's Ramon Ortiz -- resulted in a 1-1 tie after six. Two solo homers accounted for both runs -- Damian Jackson went deep in the fifth, Morgan Ensberg in the sixth.

But Vidro led off the seventh with a fly ball that sliced to the right of Willy Taveras, who was unable to make a clean grab. Instead, the ball bounced off Taveras' glove for a double, and following Nick Johnson's sacrifice bunt, Vidro scored on Jose Guillen's sacrifice fly to right.

The Astros had the same luck against relievers Gary Majewski and Chad Cordero as they did against Ortiz, which prevented them from making a late-game push.

The loss took some of the luster from what was Nieve's best outing of the year.

"I had a long time where I didn't throw the ball past the fifth inning," Nieve said. "Today, I felt comfortable with my mechanics. I tried to not lose concentration, just focus."

"He pitched very well," Ausmus said. "That's probably the best he's thrown. He did a good job of keeping the ball out of the middle of the plate."

Ausmus was also complimentary toward Ortiz, who turned in his longest outing since last September. Ortiz has won two straight after beginning the season 0-4 in seven starts.

"He changed his approach," Ausmus said. "Usually, it's a lot of fastballs and changeups. Tonight, he threw more sliders and two-seamers. He did a nice job."

Manager Phil Garner didn't sound as convinced.

"I'm not sure it was him or us tonight," he said. "We just didn't swing the bats very well tonight. He looked like he might have located some fastballs pretty decent, but we just didn't swing the bats very well tonight."

The Astros produced two baserunners through the first three innings. In the fourth, Lance Berkman and Preston Wilson singled and Ausmus loaded the bases with a walk, but Adam Everett popped to second to end the inning.

Nieve knocked a base hit off Ortiz in the fifth, but he was erased on a sacrifice bunt attempt by Willy Taveras. The inning ended when Craig Biggio hit into a double play.

Following Ensberg's sixth-inning homer, the Astros produced only one more baserunner.

"We had an opportunity to win it," Ausmus said. "We didn't. We came up short. They got some big home runs in the eighth inning to solidify it. There's a difference between one and three runs. Even so, their three pitchers did a very nice job. When Ortiz got in trouble, he did a nice job of getting out of it without giving up any runs."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.