There was no one to greet Derek Lowe when he reached the dugout steps with one out in the sixth inning Friday night. The right-hander grabbed his warmup jacket and descended a second set of stairs that led toward the clubhouse, his night complete.
It was another unceremonious departure for a Dodgers starting pitcher, something that has happened with alarming frequency for Lowe and his teammates in recent weeks.
In their last 20 outings combined, the top four Dodgers starters have pitched seven innings on only three occasions. Lowe has not reached the seventh inning in his last five starts, and he was done after only 5 1/3 innings Friday as the Dodgers lost to the Houston Astros, 7-1, at Dodger Stadium.
The Astros tagged Lowe for two runs in the second inning, two runs in the third and two more in the fifth during his worst start of the season. He gave up eight hits and six runs overall and has now lost three of his last four decisions.
But he isn't the only Dodgers starter having trouble pitching deep into games. Dodgers starters have no complete games this season and the pitching staff has only one combined shutout -- on opening day.
"That's our biggest concern," Dodgers Manager Joe Torre said of his starters' early exits. "If we're going to be successful, our starters obviously have to get us to late in the game and keep the game close."
After getting rocked for four early runs, Lowe retired seven consecutive batters and appeared to be finding a groove until Miguel Tejada hit a two-out single in the fifth inning. Lance Berkman then launched his 12th homer, a two-run shot that landed in the right-field pavilion, to give Houston a 6-0 lead.
"It was one of those frustrating games, because you felt like you had good enough stuff not to give up six runs," Lowe said. "There's a long way to go, but it's important to go out next time and get a good one."
Carlos Lee also drove in two runs for the Astros, who improved to 12-5 since April 21, matching the Dodgers for the best record in baseball over that period.
The Dodgers' offense was missing shortstop Rafael Furcal, who sat out a third consecutive game because of tightness in his lower back. Even though Furcal was hitting .366 with five homers, Torre said he would not rush his team's hottest hitter back into the lineup and that his injury might require another day or two of rest.
"It was tough for me. I want to play," Furcal said. "But it's better you miss a couple of games than you miss a month. We'll see tomorrow what happens."
Juan Pierre did a fine job replacing Furcal atop the batting order, drawing a leadoff walk in the first inning and stealing second with nobody out before being stranded there when Houston starter Brian Moehler retired the next three batters. Pierre also moved Lowe into scoring position in the third inning with a sacrifice bunt, but Lowe could not advance as Russell Martin grounded out and Matt Kemp struck out to end the inning.
An inning later, Blake DeWitt's two-out single past diving shortstop Tejada put runners on first and second, but Chin-lung Hu grounded into a fielder's choice in which second baseman Kazuo Matsui's throw to Tejada barely beat DeWitt sliding into second base.
Kemp's hitting streak ended at a career-best 12 games, but Andruw Jones had two quality at-bats with a walk and a double in his last two plate appearances.
Jones received sarcastic applause when he scored in the ninth on Hu's groundout.