The Astros are the rebuilders, but they are also hot, and rode a stellar Jordan Lyles start and two home runs which accounted for seven RBIs to a 10-1 win over the Brewers in the opener of a three-game series, further narrowing the gap between two teams that entered the year with drastically different expectations.
The Astros are 27-45 and the Brewers are 28-41.
"When we don't pitch well and we don't hit with people in scoring position," Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke said, "we're not a very good team."
The Astros did both of those things well on Tuesday, getting seven strong innings from Lyles and scoring their 10 runs on only eight hits. Carlos Pena's three-run home run off Brewers starter Alfredo Figaro broke the game open in the fifth inning, and Matt Dominguez's grand slam off reliever Tom Gorzelanny sealed it in the seventh.
"Two pitches screwed the game up," Carlos Gomez said. "This game is tough like this. In the last week and a half, we've been playing good. We're going to come [Wednesday] with the same enthusiasm to play, and we'll figure it out because we are a good team."
The 22-year-old Lyles was terrific again, holding Milwaukee to one run on seven hits in seven innings, with no walks and five strikeouts. He is 3-0 with a 1.61 ERA over his last seven starts, one reason the Astros have won 12 of their last 20 games.
Figaro could not recapture the form that carried him to seven scoreless innings against the Marlins five days earlier. The first of third baseman Yuniesky Betancourt's two errors and Figaro's own misfired throw cost him one run in the second inning, and Marwin Gonzalez's perfectly-executed safety squeeze bunt cost the Brewers another go-ahead run in the fourth, but it was Pena's three-run homer that changed the game in the fifth.
Figaro was in trouble in that inning after singles by Jason Castro and Chris Carter pushed Figaro's pitch count over 90 with one out and the strikeout-prone but power-hitting Pena due next. Figaro threw a slider above the zone for Ball 1, then came back with a high fastball at 94 mph, which Pena hooked deep down the right-field line for a 5-1 Astros lead.
It was Figaro's final pitch. He exited after allowing five runs, four earned, on five hits in 4 1/3 innings.
"It was one of those days where you feel like your command is just not there," Figaro said. "Today, I was a little tired in this game. I didn't have a lot of energy in that game, but we have to compete and we have to find the answers no matter how we feel. There's no excuse for the energy. You just have to fight it."
Another throwing error by Betancourt helped the Astos pile on in a five-run seventh inning highlighted by Dominguez's first career grand slam. The third baseman finished with a career-high five RBIs.
"It's pretty cool," said Dominguez, who also delivered a sacrifice fly with the bases loaded in the second inning. "I had a chance earlier in the game to do it and I just missed the pitch. Fortunately, I had the same opportunity later and got a good pitch to hit and got a good swing on it."
The Brewers' had a much tougher time against Lyles, only briefly tying the game at 1 in the third inning when Juan Francisco hit a booming triple to Tal's Hill in center field and scored on Scooter Gennett's infield single. But the Astros went back ahead in the fourth inning on Gonzalez's perfect squeeze, and led the rest of the way.
Gomez had two hits and the defensive play of the day for Milwaukee in the seventh inning, when he climbed the hill in center field for an over-the-shoulder catch. But Betancourt committed an error on the very next play to spark the Astros' five-run rally.
"I got lucky that the ball kept straight on me," said Gomez, who insisted he'd made better catches in his career. "Every time you steal a home run, it's bigger than that."
Each of Betancourt's errors led to an unearned Astros run. The Brewers have committed an error in three of their last four games after a streak of nine error-free games in a row.
"It troubles me any time we don't play good defense, but Yuni has played good defense for us, and that's just a bad game for him," Roenicke said. "He doesn't usually do that. He's solid, especially throwing the ball.
"I guess what's more concerning is the offense. We have chances, and we don't get people in. That ballgame is a lot different if we drive the people in when we had the opportunities to do it."
The chief culprit was cleanup man Aramis Ramirez, who made three unproductive outs with men in scoring position while going 0-for-4 and falling to 2-for-22 on the road trip. He has been playing with a left knee at less than 100 percent.
"You'll have to ask him [whether that's a factor]," Roenicke said. "He's certainly not where he usually is. We need him right now to swing the bat well with [Ryan Braun] being out."
Braun is on the disabled list with a hand injury. The Brewers will play on.
"It's not from a lack of these guys playing hard," Roenicke said of the team's effort on Tuesday. "Hey, it's a good ballgame tonight until Pena hits that home run. We had a couple of opportunities, but guys are still playing hard."