The relief corps couldn't protect a two-run lead for starter Scott Feldman and allowed the Nationals to push across three runs in the seventh inning -- two runs were charged to Josh Zeid and one to Darin Downs -- to send the Astros to their third consecutive one-run loss, 6-5, at Nationals Park.
"That's always tough," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "When you look at the good run in which our bullpen was on, a lot of that was predicated by the fact our starters were going deep into the game -- seven [innings], Dallas [Keuchel] sometimes eight or nine. The guys were well rested. Any time you start to stretch it out and now you're trying to get 12 or more outs out of those guys down there, it makes it very challenging."
After a woeful start to the season, the Astros' bullpen rebounded to post a 1.56 ERA in a 22-game stretch from May 11-June 5, but the last 12 games have seen the relievers combine for a 5.31 ERA. They allowed six earned runs in six innings in the two-game series in Washington.
It hasn't helped that the Astros have been without injured relievers Jesse Crain, Matt Albers and Anthony Bass for an extended period of time. Along with Chad Qualls, they were the key veterans the Astros acquired last winter to fortify the bullpen.
"It's always tough when you lose players in which you count on having," Porter said. "At the same time, that just opens up opportunity for the guys, and when opportunity knocks, you need to be there, ready to answer the bell. It's unfortunate we didn't have those guys, but there's nothing you can do about injuries in the game. But like we always say: it's next man up."
The Astros scored four times in the fourth inning to take a 4-2 lead, highlighted by a two-run single by Matt Dominguez. That put Feldman in line for the win after he allowed two earned runs and six hits in five treacherous innings.
"It was a battle," Feldman said. "I was throwing a lot of pitches, and it's hard to stop sweating when you're throwing so many pitches like that. The last couple of innings were better, but I wish I had been a little more conservative with them early on in the game."
The Nationals cut the lead to 4-3 in the sixth when Denard Span hit a double over the head of George Springer in right field to score Danny Espinosa. The Astros led, 5-3, heading to the bottom of the seventh, when Zeid gave up a leadoff homer to Anthony Rendon.
"Anthony Rendon is a good player and he continues to swing a hot bat against us," Porter said. "We felt like Zeid was going to be able to get those first two guys and have Downs ready for [Adam] LaRoche. You look at that ballclub over there and it's a veteran team with some young, talented guys sprinkled in, and they did a good job tonight."
Zeid was pulled after walking Jayson Werth, and he scored when Ryan Zimmerman beat out a potential double-play ball at first to tie the game. Ian Desmond followed with a double to left field to score Zimmerman.
"Scott pitched great and our team did a really good job of getting ahead early," Zeid said. "I had a job to do to come in and hold a lead and I didn't do that. I didn't get ahead of guys, I left balls up in the zone and Major League hitters are going to turn around and make you feel pretty bad."
The Astros were held to seven hits, including two by Jose Altuve, who banged out career hits 500 and 501. Nats starter Gio Gonzalez gave up four runs, three walks and five hits in five innings.