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Houston — No wonder manager Ron Gardenhire was so steamed. 

He lost Miguel Cabrera, who had already produced two hits and one long fly out to right field, in the fifth inning Monday night to what he and Cabrera strongly believe was an unjustified ejection.

"The last three times they threw me out, they (Major League Baseball) didn't even fine me because they knew they threw me out for no reason," Cabrera said after the Tigers dropped a hard-fought 5-4 battle to the Houston Astros. "Just like today."

Cabrera was in the dugout talking in Spanish to Astros' Jose Altuve, who was in the on-deck circle. Whatever Cabrera was saying was yelled across the home plate area and Spanish-speaking home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez.

Cabrera, who had gotten into a brief spat with Marquez earlier in the game, was talking to Altuve about Astros' rookie slugger Yordan Alvarez, who was at the plate.

"I was talking to Altuve about (Alvarez) because he's clearly awesome, just 22 with a really good approach at the plate," Cabrera said. "There was no reason for me to argue. He took a 2-2 pitch and I said to Altuve, 'It's unreal how he took that pitch.'"

Marquez quickly pulled off his mask, turned to the Tigers' dugout and tossed Cabrera.

Gardenhire, who hadn’t been ejected since June 29, bolted from the dugout to engage Marquez, hoping in vain to put the ejection on himself and keep his designated hitter in the game.

Marquez tossed them both. It was the eighth ejection of the season for Gardenhire, the fourth for Cabrera.

BOX SCORE: Astros 5, Tigers 4

"He said he had warned me two times, but when he did that I was at home plate (earlier in the game)," Cabrera said. "I asked him to call the same pitch he calls for the other team. The first thing he tells me is, 'You want me to throw you out?'

"I said, 'If you think that's a reason to throw me out, then throw me out.' He said he was just going to warn me and said OK and didn't say anything."

Still, the altercation was emblematic of the Tigers’ fight level in this one.

"These games are character-builders," said acting manager Steve Liddle. "The last three or four games we've been right there against playoff-caliber teams. We're going to draw from that and learn from that and keep moving forward."

Rookie Travis Demeritte, hitting in the No. 2 hole, was a catalyst. He had three hits, including a 434-foot home run to straightaway center field that put the Tigers within a run, 5-4 in the seventh. He singled and scored on a Brandon Dixon sacrifice fly in the third.

His only mistake, if you could call it that, was an error of aggression in the first. The Tigers’ first four hitters singled against Astros’ left-hander Wade Miley, but only scored one run. Demeritte was thrown out at second base on a superb play by center fielder George Springer.

"He's doing everything we hoped for," Liddle said. "That's why we acquired him. He has the skill-set that allows him to be on a championship team one day."

Demeritte has played in 18 straight games since being acquired from the Braves in the Shane Greene trade. He’s hit safely in 13 of them and had five multi-hit games. In the last 13 games he’s hitting .354 with three doubles, a triple and two home runs.  

Ronny Rodriguez uncorked a 429-foot home run in the sixth inning that banged off the façade just below the train tracks that run about the wall in left-center field. It was his eighth homer of the season.

Demeritte had a chance to put an exclamation point on a huge day, too. He came up with runners at the corners and two outs in the eighth. But reliever Will Harris struck him out with a 2-2 fastball, stranding the tying run at third. 

The Tigers put the tying run at second base with one out in the ninth, too. Dixon sliced a double into the right field corner against Astros closer Roberto Osuna. He went to third on a ground out by Dawel Lugo. 

But Osuna ended the game by striking out John Hicks on three straight 96-mph fastballs.

"We're playing better baseball right now," catcher Jake Rogers said. "Guys are having better at-bats and the pitchers are throwing well. We're just running with it right now."

The Astros did the bulk of their damage in the  first inning against Tigers’ starter Edwin Jackson. In a 34-pitch inning, Jackson yielded four hits and a walk that ended up translating into four runs. An RBI double by Alvarez and a two-run double by Yuli Gurriel were the big blows.

"The dagger to the heart was the 0-2 pitch to Gurriel," Jackson said. "That's a free pitch. I have to do a better job of making a pitch there. But we continued to battle and continued to fight back."

It was clear from the start Jackson didn’t have his best stuff. His velocity was down and he was struggling to get ahead of the Astros hitters. Still, in keeping with the fighting theme, he soldiered through five innings, allowing three hits and a run after the first.

"They had opportunities to add on and he shut them down," Liddle said. "That's what veteran pitchers do. Sometimes it takes a while to get going and to find their rhythm. But once he got into his rhythm, he was able to compete."

Relievers Nick Ramirez, David McKay and Gregory Soto kept it a one-run deficit through eight. McKay was impressive, striking out Jose Altuve, Gurriel and Robinson Chirinos in the seventh.

"They won this game in the first inning and we lost this game in the first inning," Liddle said. "You play the other eight innings and we won those. But we couldn't quite get over the hump."

Astros shortstop Carlos Correa left the game in the second inning with back soreness.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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