- Associated Press - Saturday, July 26, 2014

HOUSTON (AP) - Dallas Keuchel and the Houston Astros hope his latest start is a big step in the right direction.

After another loss Friday night, a 2-0 setback to the Miami Marlins, the Astros are a season-high 19 games under .500. Keuchel, though, pitched seven strong innings in defeat.

Miami starter Brad Hand was even better, tossing three-hit ball into the eighth inning. Jeff Mathis hit a two-run double for the Marlins, who have won five of six.

Keuchel (9-7) gave up four runs or more in each of his previous five starts. But this time, he allowed only two runs - none earned - and nine hits with seven strikeouts.

“I was just able to throw the four-seam and the two-seam to try to keep them off balance with the movement,” Keuchel said. “A lot of guys know I have some sink on my fastball. They see one certain spot. If it’s lower than the spot, they say they’ll take it and it will be a ball, so I kept them honest with the four-seam as well.”

The Marlins took advantage of an error by center fielder Enrique Hernandez in the seventh. With one out, Hernandez misplayed a sharp line drive by Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Adeiny Hechavarria then reached on an infield single with two outs before Mathis drove in both runners with a double.

“I have to make a better pitch right there,” Keuchel said.

Hernandez, a utility player, is playing center because Houston’s other three center fielders - George Springer, Alex Pressley and Dexter Fowler - are all on the disabled list.

“It was kind of knuckling a little bit,” Hernandez said. “I should have read it a little bit longer. I broke in, and it felt like it was over me. I should have made that play; it cost us the game.”

Hand (2-2) struck out four and walked two in a career-high 7 1-3 innings to earn his second straight win. Donovan Solano and Giancarlo Stanton each had two hits for the Marlins.

“(Hand) threw his fastballs on the outer third, breaking balls to the righties’ back foot, and he just attacked the strike zone,” Astros manager Bo Porter said. “I felt like we had some pitches that we could have hit, but we did not put those in play efficiently.”

Houston, which has lost three straight, did not get a runner past second base. Chris Carter reached second in the first, and Jason Castro doubled in the eighth to chase Hand.

Bryan Morris got two outs in the eighth, and Steve Cishek pitched a perfect ninth for his 25th save.

Hand cruised through the first five innings, allowing just two baserunners, and retired seven of his first eight batters. Chris Carter reached on a walk in the first and Gregorio Petit singled with one out in the third.

Hand continued a string of solid starts since transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation at the beginning of July. He has allowed three runs or fewer in each of his five starts.

The left-hander retired nine of the first 10 batters he faced but ran into trouble in the fifth and sixth, allowing the first two batters to reach in both innings. Houston’s defense helped him out both times, turning double plays in each inning.

“He was mixing his pitches, and he really kept us off balance,” Hernandez said. “He got ahead all night.”

NOTES: Miami recalled catcher J.T. Realmuto from Double-A Jacksonville and optioned right-hander Anthony DeSclafani to Triple-A New Orleans. … Houston selected the contract of Petit, an infielder, from Triple-A Oklahoma City. He started at shortstop. The Astros optioned right-hander Anthony Bass to Oklahoma City after Thursday’s game. … Houston also transferred right-hander Matt Albers to the 60-day disabled list. … Miami challenged the original safe call on Jose Altuve’s attempted stolen base in the sixth. After review, the call was overturned and Altuve was out.



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