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Simon struggling to regain form

HOUSTON -- Alfredo Simon feels healthy, he insists. The groin issue that knocked him out of his start in Boston a few weeks ago and hampered him in his next outing is no longer an issue.

"I feel way better now," Simon says, but that has yet to reflect in his pitching. On Friday it was his command that was ailing, and the rest of the ballclub felt it on the way to a 5-1 loss to the Astros.

It was his first loss since before the All-Star break, ending a four-start unbeaten streak. But with four runs on six hits over five-plus innings, it was his third consecutive non-quality start, and 10th in his last 11 outings.

Simon has given up 14 runs on 17 hits over 17 1/3 innings in his last three starts, with twice as many walks (eight) as strikeouts (four). The stretch has bumped his ERA for the season from 4.46 to 4.84. He's battling down the stretch for a team trying to avoid a late-season fall, but he's struggling in the process. Friday looked like a particular struggle.

One pitch after another, Simon seemed to be searching for his spot and a way out of his predicament, either behind in a count or staring at runners on. His pace on his mound, never quick, slowed to a crawl, even for him. Infielders poked at the dirt, outfielders stood in wait and catcher James McCann put down calls.

"He's a very deliberate pitcher as it is, but tonight his pace was different," McCann admitted. "Maybe it was one of those things [where] he didn't feel his greatest."

Even in the air-conditioned confines of Minute Maid Park, it was a rough combination. Yet as he meandered through the Astros lineup and escaped jams -- two runners stranded in the first and third innings, another erased on a double play to end the fourth -- he kept Houston's hyper-aggressive hitters frustrated.

The Astros have the second-lowest batting average and highest strikeout total in the American League, but they've thrived by outslugging their opponents. For four innings, all they managed were walks and singles. Simon threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of 24 hitters but went to 11 three-ball counts.

"He threw a lot of balls," manager Brad Ausmus said. "It was almost 50-50 balls and strikes, but he somehow seemed for the most part to almost wiggle out of it and really kept us in the ballgame. But his pitch count started climbing because of the balls that he was throwing."

If Simon couldn't reverse the trend, it would eventually get him. On his 98th pitch, it finally did.

Simon had 48 balls and 48 strikes through 96 pitches, but he still had a 1-1 game. He was an out away from escaping a second-and-third, no-out jam with one run allowed if he could retire cleanup hitter Jed Lowrie, who had flied out on a 3-0 pitch his first time up, then grounded out on the second.

Simon gave Lowrie another 3-0 count in the fifth, and Lowrie let the next pitch go for a strike. With a 3-1 count and Carlos Gomez due up, Simon finally had to challenge him.

"I just want [him] to put the ball in play," Simon said. "I don't want to walk him and then try to face Gomez."

Simon threw Lowrie a fastball. Lowrie hit it off the left-field wall, driving in two runs and putting the Astros ahead for good.

It was one pitch that hurt him, but that one pitch was five innings in the making.

"Tonight I think he was just behind in the count consistently," McCann said, "and that forced him to come to hitters. Eventually they broke through."

Jason Beck is a reporter for Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and listen to his podcast.
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