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Houston — Whoever gets to grapple with these Houston Astros in the playoffs, good luck.

First you get Justin Verlander, who is on track to win his second Cy Young award. He never pitched out of the stretch in nine innings against the Tigers on Wednesday night. They managed two hits off him, both solo home runs, and struck out 11 times.

Then you get Gerrit Cole. Buckle up, because he’s bringing upper-90s heat right out of the gate, mixing in a hard slider and, just for kicks, a knuckle-curve.

At least the Tigers made Cole work out of the stretch a couple of times. He blanked the Tigers on two singles over seven innings and punched out 12 in the Astros’ 6-3 win on Thursday night.

BOX SCORE: Astros 6, Tigers 3

"They are going up against the elite guys and they're getting to see firsthand what makes them great," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Those are some power arms, and that's an understatement. 

"We've seen on this road trip, here and Tampa, a lot of good pitching. Call it a learning experience."

Ronny Rodriguez singled with two outs in the second and Victor Reyes singled with one out in the sixth. That was it off Cole.

(By the way, once you get past those two, you'll have Zack Greinke waiting for you in Game 3.)

The Tigers, though, did get in a few punches before they left town. Down 6-0 in the ninth, they hit back-to-back home runs off reliever Joe Biagini and forced the Astros to use closer Roberto Osuna for the third time in four days.

"We had some good at-bats at the end there," Gardenhire said. "We did a nice job of pitching in this series and we played defense. It was a good series, even though we lost three of four."

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John Hicks, the hero Wednesday, drove a pinch-hit two-run home run over the train tracks in left field.

Niko Goodrum followed with a solo shot to right-center. It was the 10th home run for Hicks and the 12th for Goodrum. A couple of walks later, the Tigers had the tying run at the plate, with rookie Dawel Lugo up against Osuna.

Osuna threw a 97-mph fastball and the ball left Lugo's bat at 100 mph, on a line toward the wall in right-center field.

"I definitely thought it was going out," said Lugo through interpreter Carlos Guillen. "I was waiting for that pitch, that fastball. He threw me that fastball and I hit it. Unfortunately, it didn't go, but I honestly thought I hit it out."

Josh Reddick reached and caught it just above the yellow line at the top of the wall.

"We battled," Lugo said. "We fought today. We played well against a really good team. We just have to keep going."

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Jordan Zimmermann, in his second start since having a nerve-blocking injection in his neck, kept the Tigers close for half the game. He gave up a two-run home run to Alex Bregman but nothing else in his five innings.

Like Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander on Wednesday, Zimmermann was effective by pitching the Astros hitters inside, moving them off the plate, and then getting them to reach for sliders or two-seam fastballs away.

He got nine ground ball outs that way.

But Bregman foiled the plan in the fourth. Whether he was looking for a pitch inside or not, he got a four-seamer in that may have been out of the strike zone. He was able to bring his hands in and get the barrel to it — pulling it on a line into the Crawford boxes in left field.

Zimmermann, still rebuilding his pitch count, was at 81 pitches and done after five innings. In his last two starts, he’s allowed just two runs and four hits in 10 innings.

"Zimm did his thing," Gardenhire said. "He got us through five and was right where we expected him to be. But we had to scramble through after that and that's what hurt us with the bullpen."

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The Tigers bullpen, after pitching six strong innings Wednesday night, wasn’t as stingy.

The Astros added a run in the sixth off lefty Gregory Soto. Yordan Alvarez doubled in a run and Soto was still in the soup. With the bases loaded and one out, he got Abraham Toro, who made his big-league debut, to tap back to him.

He nearly threw the ball away, but catcher Jake Rogers flagged it down and kept his foot on the plate for the force out.

Soto ended the inning by getting Martin Maldonado to fly to right.

The Astros blew it open, sending nine hitters to the plate in a three-run the seventh. Right-hander David McKay gave up a hit and two walks, leaving the mess to lefty Nick Ramirez.

Michael Brantley plated two with a single and Yuli Gurriel another with a bloop to short right.

Brantley had three hits. In 131 career games against the Tigers, he's hitting .331 with 75 RBIs and 250 total bases. Fun fact: He was due up Wednesday night when Robinson Chirinos was thrown out at third in the ninth to end the game.

“I was walking him,” Gardenhire said before the game. “I had already made up my mind when Chirinos was rounding second base. We were walking Brantley. Then he was thrown out and we started high-fiving. Didn’t have to make that decision.”

After the game, the Tigers, who will play three games against the Twins in Minnesota, sent Alexander back to Triple-A Toledo. Matthew Boyd will return off paternity leave and is expected to start on Sunday. 

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @cmccosky

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