HOUSTON The deferential hat tips were obligatory: first toward Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright on Sunday, then another directed at Marlins right-hander Carlos Zambrano on Monday night.
But for an offense that had seemingly discovered its stride, the Astros' sudden futility could be described as curious if concerning felt a tad overzealous. Wainwright and Zambrano have histories of exceptionality, particularly against the Astros at Minute Maid Park. However, anytime a hot lineup grinds to a screeching halt, there is reason to ask questions.
"Yeah, we're going to talk to some guys about some things. There's no doubt," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "And we are going to make a little bit of an adjustment (Tuesday). It's not major, though, but yeah, we're going to make an adjustment."
After Zambrano shut down and shut out the Astros 4-0 with a splendid three-hitter, it didn't seem outlandish to ponder their corresponding move. Wainwright pitched fabulously the previous afternoon, allowing one run over seven innings for his most effective outing of the season.
When Zambrano (1-2) followed suit, facing just two batters over the minimum without allowing a base runner to advance into scoring position, the Astros (13-16) were reduced to tipping hats all over the clubhouse. These results happen when outstanding pitchers take the bump. That they unfolded consecutively was a byproduct of poor timing.
"You're going to have games like that," said Astros left fielder J.D. Martinez, who finished 0-for-3 against Zambrano. "The adjustments come, but sometimes you run into a guy, into a horse like that where he's just carrying a team and making his pitches and there's nothing you can really do. If you're not getting good pitches to hit, it's pretty tough to hit. Any really good or great hitter can tell you that. Great hitters get good pitches and they don't miss them. When you have a guy that doesn't give up a lot of good pitches for you to hit, it's tough to hit."
Zambrano was unquestionably marvelous. Mills described his sinker as moving one way, his slider as moving another, and his splitter as dropping straight down. When Zambrano fell behind in the count he quickly rebounded by showcasing a repertoire that was near unhittable.
From the Astros' perspective, near unhittable beats the alternative Zambrano presented on Sept. 14, 2008 when he no-hit the Astros 5-0 in a game relocated to Miller Park in Milwaukee due to Hurricane Ike. He has exerted command over the Astros throughout his career, compiling a 16-8 mark over 32 starts during an uneven 11-year run with the Cubs.
His move to the Marlins (15-14) hasn't altered his effectiveness. While he issued six walks against the Astros on April 14 in Miami, Zambrano surrendered only one run on four hits over six innings. He needed 110 pitches to buzz through the Astros in their second meeting, allowing three singles, two hit batsmen and a walk. For those rare occasions when he hit a troublesome patch, Zambrano induced four double plays.
"I've seen him in spring training the past couple of years, and that's the best that he's looked that I've seen him," said Astros right fielder Travis Buck, who finished 1-for-2 with a walk. "Obviously his command for all of his pitches was spot-on. He wasn't walking anybody, he was throwing strikes, (and) he was getting ahead. If he fell behind in the count he was throwing it off-speed for strikes. He kept everybody off-balance."
If that sentiment sounded familiar, it was echoed from what the Astros said of Wainwright. But only so much credit should be heaped on Wainwright and Zambrano. For the Astros, some self-reflection is due.
After smacking eight home runs over the first five games of this home stand, the Astros mustered zero extra-base hits over the past two contests. Walks are a critical component of the Astros' offense, yet they have totaled only two over the past 18 innings. Mills was opaque with his reference to adjustments, but clearly some are in the offing. Conceding to the superiority of the opposing pitcher is rife with folly.
Besides, with Anibal Sanchez and Josh Johnson next up in the Marlins' rotation, the Astros can't afford too many more hat tips. What fueled their offensive to five consecutive victories must be regenerated if this sudden slump is to be abated. That task appears to be strenuous.
"The next two guys are just as good if not better than the majority of the starters in the big leagues," Buck said. "Hopefully they make mistakes, and us as hitters have got to be ready to jump on those mistakes because you know with guys like that, they're not going to leave too many balls over the plate. When you get your chances to put some runs across or put together some good (at-bats), we've got to be able to do that."
Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda