HOUSTON – It had been nearly a quarter of a century since the Braves started a season with four consecutive losses, and Monday night it was newest Braves who were largely responsible for getting them back to that place they did not want to be.
Third baseman Juan Francisco’s double error led to three unearned runs in the third inning and reliever Livan Hernandez gave up two runs in the sixth in an 8-3 series-opening loss to Houston that dropped the Braves to 0-4 in the young season.
The Braves blew an early 3-0 lead and fell to 0-4 for the first time since 1988, when they started out 0-10 and finished with a 54-106 record.
“We’re not real pretty to watch right now as a team, but we’ll get it going,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves have hit .165 and lost all their games against a pair of teams, the Mets and Astros, picked to finish last in their respective divisions.
After being swept in a three-game series at New York that ended Sunday, the Braves found a new way to lose Monday — by blowing their first lead of the season.
“That was a game we kind of gave away,” catcher Brian McCann said. “We’ve just got to bounce back tomorrow and be ready to play…. They found the holes when they needed to. It stinks.
“Tomorrow’s a new day. We’ve got to get a win.”
The Astros (3-1) took advantage of mistakes and got six innings from left-hander J.A. Happ, who’s never lost in seven starts against the Braves.
The Braves have lost nine in a row dating to last season and have a 10-24 record since their late-season collapse began Aug. 26. They blew an 8-1/2-game wild card lead in the last 3-1/2 weeks of the season.
Things started well Monday for the Braves, who built an 3-0 lead on two-out RBI singles by Tyler Pastornicky and pitcher Brandon Beachy in the second inning and McCann’s third-inning single after Martin Prado’s leadoff double.
The Braves had been 0-for-8 this season with runners in scoring position and two outs before the Pastornicky and Beachy hits.
So they provided run support for Beachy, something the Braves didn’t do for their starters at New York. Unfortunately for Beachy, it came with no defensive support.
Francisco, acquired in a trade from Cincinnati on the last weekend of spring training, started at third base Friday because Gonzalez wanted to see him hit against a lefty before veteran third baseman Chipper Jones was activated off the disabled list, which is expected Tuesday.
Francisco had one of the Braves’ four second-inning singles when they jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but it was his fielding mistakes that profoundly impacted the game.
The husky Francisco made three errors in the first three innings, including a costly double-error. He made a throwing error with one out in the second, but Beachy retired the next two batters on a strikeout and groundout. No damage done, and no walks or hits by the Astros through two.
Former Brave Jordan Schafer drew a two-out walk in the Astros third, then came Francisco’s game-changing gaffe: Jose Altuve grounded to third, and Francisco bobbled the ball while trying to field and throw to first.
He gathered himself and gained control of the ball in time to make a throw to third to get Schafer, who was making an aggressive dash. But Francisco’s throw was wide and Schafer was safe.
“I didn’t make a good throw,” said Francisco, who made 34 errors in 104 games in Double-A in 2009. “When I saw I didn’t have a chance at first base, I tried to make the play at third base but I didn’t make a good throw.”
He was charged with two errors on the play, giving him three in three innings.
“We were playing good baseball until then,” Gonzalez said. “All of a sudden we mishandled some of the plays back there and we weren’t real pretty after that as a team. But it’s something [Beach] got to overcome. The good ones do, get over that hump.”
The next batter, Travis Buck, doubled to drive in two runs. The one after him, Carlos Lee, singled to drive in another.
Just like that, the Braves’ 3-0 lead was erased. All three Astros runs in the inning were unearned, and Francisco would be replaced before the bottom of the sixth inning.
“They played pretty good tonight once they found that opening,” said Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, who faced the Astros in a regular-season game for the first time since they traded him on July 31 for a package that included Schafer. “They pitched OK. We didn’t take advantage of everything. But we’ll be back tomorrow, you better believe that.”
Beachy blamed only himself after walking Schafer with two outs and a three-run lead.
“I should never have walked the guy,” he said. “Should never have had a baserunner at that point, so realistically, in my mind, I shouldn’t have been facing that batter to begin with. That’s my own fault.”
He said he didn’t have command of any secondary pitches.
“I was able to get through the first couple of innings on a fastball alone,” Beachy said, “but you’re not going to get guys out for very long when you can only throw strikes with a four-seam fastball.”
Houston took a 4-3 lead the next inning after Marwin Gonzalez doubled off the right-center wall and Happ drove him in with a single through the right side of the infield.
“I just pitched really poorly,” said Beachy, charged with four runs (one earned), four hits and three walks with three strikeouts.
The Braves’ chances for a come-from-behind win were diminished when Hernandez allowed two runs on four hits and a sacrifice fly in the sixth inning against the team that released him in the final week of spring training. The Braves signed the soft-tossing 37-year-old the day he was cut loose by the Astros, and they’re using him as a reliever after spending the past 15 seasons as a starter.
The other end-of-spring signee for the Braves, reliever Chad Durbin, served up a two-run homer by Justin Maxwell in the eighth inning in his first at-bat as an Astro.
Durbin, who was signed after being released by the Nationals, has allowed a homer in each of his two appearances for Atlanta.
“We’re still going to be fine,” Beachy said. “It’s still four games into the season. But definitely a loss like this hurts. We’re up three runs. I should have closed the door right there and that should have been it. But it didn’t happen.”
Happ improved to 3-0 with a 2.11 ERA in seven starts against the Braves. He was charged with six hits, three runs and one walk in six innings, the first time the former Phillie has allowed more than two runs against the Braves.