Carlos Lee

SAN FRANCISCO — Matt Downs was facing his former team and he insisted that carried no extra motivation.

Downs delivered a go-ahead single with one out in the 11th inning and the Houston Astros beat the San Francisco Giants 4-3 on Sunday to salvage a four-game split.

“Having Downs get the winning hit against his former team was great,” Astros’ starter Bud Norris said. “I know he’s on cloud nine.”

It was also a special homecoming for Norris, a Marin County native who was pitching in the Bay Area for the first time.

“He was back home and he was absolutely outstanding,” Houston manager Brad Mills said. “He didn’t want to come out and I didn’t want him to come out, he was throwing that good.”

Jose Altuve got things going with a one-out double against Ramon Ramirez (2-3) and Downs followed with a single up the middle. Altuve was forced into action after slugger Carlos Lee left in the top of the ninth with a sprained right ankle, sustained sliding into second on a double.

Mark Melancon (7-4) pitched the 10th and got the win despite allowing Mark DeRosa’s tying single.

Houston went ahead 3-2 in the 10th on pinch-hitter Jason Michaels’ double, then the Giants came back again.

Jordan Schafer lined a tying single to right with two outs in the eighth against Matt Cain to help force extra innings.

Aubrey Huff hit a tying RBI single off Houston starter Bud Norris in the seventh to end a 0-for-15 funk, and singled again in the ninth but the Giants didn’t score. After Huff’s initial hit in the seventh, Norris received a mound visit before giving up Orlando Cabrera’s go-ahead sacrifice fly on the next pitch.

Lee doubled against Sergio Romo in the ninth and hustled to beat the throw from right field. He came in hard to collide with shortstop Cabrera. Lee’s right leg bent and it appeared the spikes on his right shoe got caught on the bag. He grabbed his right ankle in pain as the training staff rushed out to help him off the field.

Norris had only allowed one runner to reach second base before the Giants got to him for two runs in the seventh. 

National League’s Hunter Pence of the Houston Astros runs to third base on a passed ball by American League’s Matt Wieters of the Baltimore Orioles during the seventh inning of the MLB All-Star baseball game Tuesday, in Phoenix.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

It was a tough first half of the season for the Houston Astros. With the worst record in baseball at the All-Star break, the Astros couldn’t seem to catch a break.

Save for Hunter Pence, who leads the team in the major offensive categories, the Astros have had little to hang their hats and hopes on this season. The team’s lone All-Star boasts a .323 average, has hit 11 home runs and has driven in 60 runs, but the rest of the team has done little to support Pence’s impressive numbers.

At the All-Star break, Houston owned a 30-63 record and sat 19 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates. The perennial bottom-feeders of the NL Central have finally righted the ship and are now in contention for the NL Central Division.

It is extremely difficult to find more than a couple of Astros who haven’t been a major disappointment this year. Enter Carlos Lee. The hefty Panamanian has done little to impress in a home ballpark that caters to his heavy pull hitting. With the short porch in left field only 315 feet away, Lee has only been able to hit seven home runs thus far — hardly acceptable from someone who is supposed to provide major power and is paid accordingly. Coupled with his lack of mobility both on the bases and on the field, Lee has proved to be a major hindrance for the Astros and this doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon.

Michael Bourn may not be having as bad a year as Lee, but his numbers are far from what he is capable of. The Houston native has stolen 35 bases, which is tops in the majors, but his strikeout numbers remain too high for a leadoff hitter. With a .287 average and 60 runs scored, Bourn does sit among the team leaders in those categories. However, a lack of dependable run production from the rest of the team is what has hurt the Astros thus far.

Offensive production has been minimal, as has the pitching. The Astros’ team ERA of 4.66 is next to last in the majors, and the team only has ten saves this season. The five starting pitchers share only 17 wins and the talented J.A. Happ owns a 3-11 record. Once again, it is tough to find any positives when the lowest ERA of a starting pitcher is 3.46, which belongs to Bud Norris. Norris does have 113 strikeouts as well, but his 5-6 record is far from perfect.

Lastly, Houston’s 69 errors and .980 team fielding percentage ranks 27th out of 30 teams in the majors. Just like the many balls that have gotten by the Astros to cause all those errors, this season has seemed to slip away as well.

The Astros are in quite the hole in the NL Central, but as they have proved before in the second half of the season, no lead is safe in the division. In order to mount another comeback, they’ll need help from the entire club.

Printed on 07/18/2011 as: Lack of run production, pitching cripples Astros