Astros clipped in 11 by Atlanta

Published 10:50 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A familiar problem cropped up again for the Houston Astros on Tuesday, ruining a brilliant effort by Wandy Rodriguez.

After Rodriguez pitched eight scoreless innings, the bullpen surrendered a tying homer to pinch-hitter Brian McCann with two outs in the ninth, then a two-run shot to McCann in the 11th that gave the Atlanta Braves a 3-1 win over the struggling Astros.

Houston’s bullpen has a 5.18 ERA, converting just five of 16 save opportunities. This time, the Astros had Atlanta down to its final strike, but Mark Melancon hung a curveball to McCann, who drove it out in left-center.

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McCann, who had been taking his regular day off, stayed in the game and hit the game-winner off Jeff Fulchino two innings later, a towering drive that hooked around the foul pole in right to hand the last-place Astros their eighth loss in 10 games.

“If the game is close, I know I’m the first one off the bench to hit,” the All-Star catcher said. “I’m ready for that. I know that’s my role when I’m not playing.”

This loss was especially tough for Houston.

“Oh my gosh, not only for me but for the team, too,” Rodriguez said. “Sometimes we play a good game and we lose. That’s what happens sometimes.”

Rodriguez sure did his part to win. The left-hander allowed five hits and allowed only two runners to get as far as second base.

“That’s the best I’ve ever seen Wandy Rodriguez,” Atlanta’s Chipper Jones said. “He was moving it in and out, changing speeds. We just couldn’t get anything going against him. Luckily, we had B-Mac on the bench.”

Brett Wallace broke up a scoreless duel between Rodriguez and Derek Lowe with a seventh-inning homer.

Cory Gearrin (1-1) escaped a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the top of the 11th, helped by a disputed call, and was rewarded with his first career win. The Braves capped an eight-day homestand with their fourth straight win.

“I felt like struggled in this game more than any other,” Gearrin said. “That’s how this game is. It gives and it takes away.”

The Braves didn’t do much offensively, even with the return of Chipper Jones and Jason Heyward to the lineup.

Jones, who had missed the past two games with a slight meniscus tear in his right knee, moved well at third base but struck out twice in the late innings with runners aboard. Heyward started for the first time in seven games after undergoing an MRI on his right shoulder.

The Astros squandered a chance to go ahead in the 11th against Gearrin. Brian Bogusevic, who entered as a defensive replacement in the eighth, reached on a bunt single and stole second. Wallace was walked intentionally, and it looked as though the Astros had loaded the bases when Matt Downs was hit on the left elbow.

But plate umpire Alfonso Marquez ruled immediately that Downs raised his elbow to let the ball strike him. After a brief argument, Downs returned to the box and struck out.

“That was an absolutely brutal call,” manager Brad Mills said. “You don’t make that call in that situation where he’s trying to get out of the way. He was trying to protect himself.”

Clint Barmes followed with a walk that did fill the bases, only to have J.R. Towles hit a hard grounder right at shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who started the 6-4-3 double play.

Lowe was breezing along until the seventh, when Wallace drove a 3-1 pitch about four rows deep in the left-center seats to put the Astros ahead. The Braves starter went seven innings, allowing five hits, no walks and striking out four.

“Starting pitching has been our strength all year long,” Lowe said. “I’m just trying to do my part.”

Melancon benefited from two stellar defensive plays to start the ninth. Downs made a diving stop at third on Dan Uggla’s hard-hit grounder, hopping up in time to make the throw to first. Then Eric Hinske drove one to the wall in right, but Hunter Pence made the catch crashing into the padding.

Finally, McCann hit it where no one could make the catch. Melancon hung a curveball over the plate, and McCann sent it out the opposite way.

“It’s what I wanted to throw,” Melancon said. “I left it up.”

NOTES: The Braves said RHP Peter Moylan underwent surgery for a bulging disc in his lower back. He’s expected to be out two to three months. … The Braves have to make a roster move before Wednesday’s game in Arizona. RHP Julio Teheran will be coming up from Triple-A Gwinnett to make his second career start, filling in for injured Brandon Beachy. … The Astros optioned LHP Fernando Abad to Oklahoma City and purchased the contract of RHP Fernando Rodriguez from the Triple-A team.