HOUSTON -- Slugging a late home run, Dontrelle Willis seemingly took matters into his own hands in his quest for his first victory of the season.
Even that wasn't enough, as the Reds found yet another frustrating way to lose a game. This time it was a 5-4 defeat to the Astros on Wednesday at Minute Maid Park.
"It's another tough loss," said Willis, who is winless in five starts with Cincinnati. "We're going to continue to work hard and continue to battle, but this one hurt tonight."
It most certainly did against the team with the worst record in the Majors. Houston (37-74), which featured a lineup with four players that started the season in the Minors and two guys that came straight up from Double-A, took two of three games in the series.
Now 54-57 and still in fourth place, the Reds fell 7 1/2 games behind the first-place Brewers.
There were two outs in the Reds' seventh inning in a 2-2 game when Willis attacked a 1-0 pitch from Astros starter Jordan Lyles. The 394-foot blast, which landed deep in the right-field seats, gave the Reds a one-run lead. It was his first homer of the season and the ninth of his career. Willis' last homer came on Aug. 30, 2007, against the Braves while a member of the Marlins.
Complete with an excited flip of the bat as the ball cleared the fence, Willis at least had the look of a power hitter trying to change the game with a homer. But that was not the case.
"I don't know any pitcher that does -- except maybe Micah Owings, maybe -- that can get up there and try to drive the ball out," Willis said. "I just wanted to get a good swing like always, and I just ran into a ball and got us the lead."
It didn't last long, as Willis was not brought back for the bottom of the seventh, despite having thrown only 77 pitches.
The ball went to reliever Nick Masset, who faced five batters and did not record an out, while blowing his first save since April 13. Masset immediately applied his own pressure, when pinch-hitter Brian Bogusevic drew a four-pitch walk leading off. Jason Bourgeois bunted towards first base, where Joey Votto looked to second base before throwing late to first, allowing the speedy Bourgeois to beat it out for a single. Jose Altuve also bunted, to the left side of the mound. Masset could not pick up the ball, and everybody was safe, with the bases loaded.
"You just can't give away that many outs," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "This game isn't made for five outs. You have to take the outs when you get them."
On the first pitch he saw from Masset, J.D. Martinez scorched a liner down the left-field line past diving third baseman Todd Frazier for a two-run double and a 4-3 Astros lead.
Lyles, who entered the game with a 0-6 record, emerged to earn his first big league win. He had to watch his team hang on over the final two innings.
"I'll be honest, I haven't been nervous this year. But I was nervous in that dugout tonight after I came out," Lyles said.
Sam LeCure, who used four pitches to get a double play and popup to finish the seventh for Masset, hung a first-pitch slider to Humberto Quintero in the eighth that ended up as a one-out solo homer to left field. Yonder Alonso's pinch-hit, two-out RBI single scored Jay Bruce in the ninth, but the Reds came up short, again. They are 16-25 in one-run games this season, including both losses in this series.
The question likely on the minds of many was why was Willis pulled so early in the game with so few pitches? He allowed two runs on eight hits over six innings, with one walk and two strikeouts.
"He really wasn't sharp all night," Baker said. "We felt fortunate to get as deep in the game as we did. I don't know if you noticed, they were hitting some balls hard off of him tonight, which they didn't do earlier against Dontrelle. That was far enough."
Willis started off in a 2-0 first-inning hole while giving up four hits, including a two-run homer by Martinez -- the first of his big league career.
Lyles kept the Reds off the scoreboard, as they went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position over the first four innings. With one out in the fifth, Frazier hit a first pitch off of the Citgo sign high above left field for his second homer of the season to get the Reds on the board.
In the top of the sixth, Votto's third hit of the game was a one-out double to the gap in right-center field. He scored on a Brandon Phillips single to center field, after an off-line throw towards the plate was cut off by first baseman Carlos Lee. Votto slid safely into home without a play at the plate and tied the game.
In the bottom of the frame, Willis gave up a one-out single to Jason Michaels and a Jimmy Paredes double, but came out unscathed.
"Honestly, I really felt like I didn't have good command," Willis said. "Once again, our defense and the talent we have around me picked me up today. Ramon [Hernandez] did a good job of calling the right pitches to get me out of those jams. It was a team effort to get me out of those jams and keep us in the ballgame. That's what they've been doing the whole time since I've been up."
Willis picked himself up with his bat in the seventh, and it was almost enough for a win. In five starts, he is 0-1 with a 3.68 ERA. Three of his potential wins were wiped out by blown saves.
"We decided to let Dontrelle hit, which ended up being a good decision," Baker said. "I sure wanted to get that first victory for him."