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Astros tame Tigers hitters for second straight night

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Houston — Maybe the landscape will look completely different in a month or more. Baseball landscapes in May are often impermanent, fluid.

But as it looks today, if the Houston Astros represent a bona fide playoff contender in the American League — and their 31-15 record would suggest they do — then the Tigers aren’t even in the conversation.

The contrast in quality of play in the Astros' 6-2 victory on Tuesday was stark and revealing.

The Tigers' only triumph was over their impotent 22-inning scoreless streak, dating to the third inning Sunday, which they ended in the seventh inning on Mikie Mahtook’s two-run home run off reliever Michael Feliz.

BOX SCORE: Astros 6, Tigers 2

That was the last, and only, hurrah.

“We’re going to hit; I am not even worried about that,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “You ask people around baseball if the Detroit Tigers are going to hit and it will be a unanimous yes. I can promise you, we are going to hit.”

The track records of the Tigers’ hitters suggest that they will. But it’s been a barren stretch. After being one-hit by four different Astros pitchers on Monday, the Tigers were threatening to be one-hit in back-to-back games for just the third time in franchise history.

Entering the seventh inning, they had mustered just six hits in the previous 22 innings, with 30 strikeouts.

“I want to give credit to the Astros pitching staff,” Ausmus said. “They have pitched well. But we’re not in a groove right now offensively, as a group.”

Mahtook was in the lineup because of a hunch Ausmus had. Mahtook normally starts against left-handed pitchers. But he’s hit righties 106 points better than lefties in a small sample size this season, and he got the lone Tigers hit off a right-hander Monday.

He validated Ausmus’ gut with the two-run shot — which was struck on an 0-2 pitch.

“Righty, lefty, ambidextrous guy — I want to go out and play as well as I can,” Mahtook said. “If you don’t have confidence in yourself then nobody else is going to have confidence in you. I’ve always known I can hit righties. Guys don’t get to the big leagues just hitting one side of the plate.

“As long as he puts me in there, I am going to keep putting up competitive at-bats.”

Offense wasn’t the Tigers’ only problem Tuesday. While the Astros played flawless defense, the Tigers slopped it up pretty good — three errors resulting in four unearned runs.

The only earned runs came via solo home runs off starter Jordan Zimmermann by Yuli Gurriel and Juan Centeno.

In the third inning, a ground ball by Jose Altuve went under the glove of third baseman Nick Castellanos, allowing Josh Reddick to score from second.

That run was delivered without the benefit of a hit — walk, stolen base and an error.

“I was more worried about the runner on second and I peeked up to see where he was,” said Castellanos, who has nine errors on the season.

Castellanos made another error, which led to another unearned run, in the eighth when he dropped a pickoff throw from pitcher Warwick Saupold.

“You have to make the plays,” Ausmus said. “Nick works his butt off, but tonight a couple of errors cost us.”

Castellanos is in a 5-for-40 slump at the plate over the last 11 games. He was asked about the possibility of taking his hitting woes onto the field with him.

“It’s one of those things; I do my best to try not to let it affect my defense,” he said. “But it is what it is.”

He’s also played every game this season. He was asked if he was dealing with mental or physical fatigue.

“I don’t believe in that,” he said. “I want to play tomorrow. The only thing I can control is how I look forward to the future. It’s up to Brad, but he knows every day I want to be in there.”

The fatal error came in the seventh. After Mahtook had cut the deficit to 3-2, Zimmermann allowed a leadoff single to Centeno.

Alex Wilson replaced him and gave up a single to Jake Marisnick on his first pitch. George Springer then hit a two-hopper back to Wilson – a potential double-play ball. But Wilson hesitated and then threw the ball into center field, allowing Centeno to score and Marisnick go to third.

Reddick followed with a sacrifice fly and the three-run lead was restored.

“Rather than looking to a spot, I got lost looking at (Ian) Kinsler and (Jose) Iglesias who were crossing behind me because of the ground ball,” Wilson said. “If I just let it go, Kins picks it up and turns it on his own.

“But I fell into that trap of not looking at a spot and following a player. Then I babied the throw on top of it. Just a terrible play on my part, plain and simple. I cost us a couple of runs.”

Zimmermann, like Fulmer on Monday, pitched well enough to win. His season-long home run issues continue to be a concern, though. He has now allowed 13 home runs this season, 10 of them solo shots. He allowed only 14 all of last season.

“I am pitching a lot better; feels like I am getting better every time out,” he said. “I can’t really put my finger on why the home runs, other than I am falling behind guys and I have to throw a hitter’s pitch. I am one of those guys that’s stubborn; I am not going to just walk a guy.

“I’m giving them something to hit and they’ve been leaving the ballpark.”

With the offensive doldrums, though, the margin of error is slight. Two solo home runs and four unearned runs is a lethal combination.

“It’s been two games,” Mahtook said. “There are veteran guys in this clubhouse, all-stars, Hall-of-Famer, guys who have done it for a very long time. I don’t think anybody is worried about it. We’re not happy with losing, but baseball is a long season. It’s a grind.

“We’re going to come in tomorrow, put together some good at-bats and have a great game.”

Twitter.com: @cmccosky