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04/10/08 1:25 AM ET

Astros can't complete comeback

Weakened by flu, Sampson tosses just four innings in loss

HOUSTON -- Albert Pujols was the leadoff hitter twice on Wednesday, and the Astros figured if there was ever a good time to throw hittable pitches to the Cardinals first baseman, it's probably when the bases were empty.

And Pujols still managed to haunt the Astros. He hit two solo homers as the Cardinals prevailed, 6-4, finishing off the series win over the Astros before 29,187 at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros spent the evening slowly chipping away at Cardinals leads, only to be knocked back down by Pujols. They came within a run of tying the game with two in the sixth, but Pujols answered with a towering shot off Dave Borkowski in the seventh. The Astros scored another run in the bottom of the inning, and there was Pujols in the ninth, depositing a fastball from Oscar Villarreal into the right-field stands.

Astros pitchers have never had an easy time with the slugging first baseman, yet in most cases, they choose to challenge him. On Wednesday, Pujols made one out in five plate appearances. He singled in the first, grounded out in the third, walked in the fifth and delivered the two homers.

"Most times, that's what you do," said manager Cecil Cooper, when asked if it's prudent to go after Pujols with no one on base. "When you're in situations where there are runners in scoring position, you don't want to play around with that guy. He's one of the best hitters there is in the game. Tonight he got a couple of pitches and put some good swings on them."

Borkowski sees no reason not to pitch to Pujols, if the pitches are good. The right-hander didn't pretend to like what he offered, nor was he surprised that Pujols launched his pitch 417 feet to left-center field.

"It makes it a lot tougher, too, when you throw a ball right down the middle," Borkowski said. "He's a great hitter and you make a mistake, he makes you pay for it. I didn't execute my pitch. I wanted to throw a sinker down and away and I threw a sinker right down the middle, a little elevated, and he did what he's supposed to do with it."

Villarreal felt Pujols was beatable, based on past experiences. Pujols was 0-for-5 with three strikeouts vs. Villarreal prior to this matchup.

"I think this was the first time he got me," Villarreal said. "Give the credit to the hitter. He's a great hitter."

The Astros also have hitters with impressive track records, but 10 games into the season, the lineup has been relatively quiet. The bats were silent against Cardinals starter Braden Looper until the sixth, and Ryan Franklin dominated the middle of the order late in the game, retiring Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Miguel Tejada on nine pitches.

"We went kind of quietly in the eighth," Cooper said. "We had a chance to do some damage there. That was a pretty good pitcher we were facing, Franklin, but I thought we had a chance."

"It hasn't gone our way yet, but it's going to come around. It has to."
-- Carlos Lee, on the
Astros' slow start

Franklin retired Hunter Pence on a fly ball to end the seventh and then induced three infield groundouts from the heart of the order in the eighth.

"It helps that those two, three, four, five guys -- they're aggressive guys," Franklin said. "Those are my type of hitters. I can throw something borderline, and I know they're going to swing at it. If you make a mistake, it's a different story. You've just got to really make your pitches."

On the Astros' side, starter Chris Sampson's attempt to pitch with the flu backfired. He struggled through four innings and was clearly sapped of his energy for most of his time on the mound.

"Sick, tired, drained," Sampson said tersely. "I went as long as I could, as hard as I could. I came in after the fourth and Coop told me I was done."

Sampson was given several shots and medications in the days leading up to this start, but clearly, he had not recovered in time for this start.

"Tough to breathe, coughing stuff up, nose running," Sampson said. "Flu-like symptoms. I felt weak all week long and just ran out of gas -- ran out of energy. I got tired very quickly. It wasn't going to stop me from taking the ball."

Said Cooper: "I thought he was a little weak, and he really started to labor in that last inning. Actually, you can tell from the at-bat he had before that inning that he really wasn't at his best tonight. We tried to milk him for everything that we could. I think he ran out of steam."

Illness was not to blame, however, for the lack of production from the other areas of the team. Ten games into the season, the Astros have three wins.

"I'm very surprised about it," Lee said. "It's got to turn around. We worked hard in Spring Training, we did all the little things to prepare ourselves for the season. It hasn't gone our way yet, but it's going to come around. It has to."

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