ST. PETERSBURG -- Astros starter Collin McHugh made the pitch he wanted in the fourth inning Thursday night and got the grounder he wanted, a roller right to sure-handed second baseman Jose Altuve. Instead of a double play, there was disaster.
Shortstop Jonathan Villar dropped Altuve's relay throw at second base to put runners at first and second base with no outs, and both runners came around to score unearned runs to help the Rays sink the Astros, 5-0, at Tropicana Field.
The error forced McHugh to throw a few more pitches than he would have liked and perhaps not pitch as deep into the game, which meant manager Bo Porter had to turn the ball over sooner to an overworked bullpen.
"You look at the quality pitches he was throwing at that point, he pretty much was in control of the game," Porter said. "That there is a ground ball, double-play ball that we end up not recording a single out, which now turns it into a pretty stressful inning."
The Astros were held to three hits and were shut out for the eighth time this season en route to their fourth consecutive loss.
McHugh pitched well, allowing two runs -- both unearned -- and four hits in six innings. He walked three batters and struck out six, but the walks didn't hurt him. Paul Clemens gave up back-to-back homers to Kevin Kiermaier and Evan Longoria in the seventh, pushing the Rays' lead to 5-0.
"Collin did a tremendous job," Porter said. "Great job attacking the zone with his fastball, had the sharpness to his breaking ball back again tonight and should have probably gotten out of the inning in which they got the two runs unscathed. The error there opened the floodgates to that inning, and they took advantage."
In the fourth, James Loney started with a single, and Brandon Guyer followed with a grounder to Altuve at second. Altuve fielded the ball cleanly and threw to Villar, who dropped the ball. Yunel Escobar had an RBI single one out later, and Ryan Hanigan put down a safety squeeze bunt to score Guyer and give the Rays a 2-0 lead.
"They've made some huge plays for me so far this season," McHugh said. "Errors are going to happen, and it's my job to keep making pitches."
Porter was dealing with an overworked bullpen and was trying to stay away from relievers Josh Zeid, Tony Sipp, Darin Downs and Kyle Farnsworth based on their recent workload.
"Those guys had been taxed over the last few days, so it was extremely important for Collin to give us the start in which he gave us, which was obviously huge," Porter said. "Unfortunately we were not able to defend the baseball to the best of our ability, and it allowed those guys to get on the board there."
Rays starter Chris Archer (4-4) held the Astros to three hits and struck out eight batters in 6 2/3 scoreless innings. The only hits he allowed were singles by George Springer in the first and Altuve in the fourth and sixth innings. Altuve (2-for-4) has gone 8-for-13 since returning to the lineup Wednesday, and he also stole two more bases Thursday.
"[Archer] had an explosive fastball and his breaking stuff was really working," Porter said. "But you look at the quality of swings we put on the ball, it just seemed like they had defenders there. Every time we hit the ball hard they were able to catch it."
McHugh (4-5) allowed the first two batters to reach base in the first and third innings, but both times he came back with three quick outs. The Rays had runners at first and third with no outs in the first following a single, a throwing error by McHugh and a walk.
"I felt like that was actually probably pivotal of him being able to go six quality innings, getting out of that first inning without giving up a run," Porter said. "He bulled his neck and made some really good pitches to some tough guys in their lineup and was able to get out of that unscathed."