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HOU@TOR: Bautista cranks a three-run homer to left

TORONTO -- There's not too many words to describe the state Josh Johnson finds himself in.

Johnson called his last start "pitiful," and there wasn't a whole lot of improvement when he stepped on the mound on Saturday against the Astros.

The Blue Jays starter allowed four runs before retiring a batter, and went on to allow five or more runs for the third straight game, as the Blue Jays lost, 8-6, to Houston in front of 34,317 at Rogers Centre.

It was just another tough outing in a season that seems to be slipping away from the pending free agent. After having so much success in Miami, Johnson admits he's running out of answers.

No, not really -- just got to make better pitches," Johnson said when asked if he had a solution to his struggles. "I made some OK pitches, but then made some terrible ones, as well."

Johnson's afternoon to forget began as badly as it possibly could have. The right-hander gave up three straight hits to begin the game, including a run on Astros catcher Jason Castro's single. Johnson proceeded to serve up a four-seam fastball down the middle that Chris Carter hit into the seats in straightaway center field for a three-run homer.

"The pitch to Carter was supposed to be down and away, and it ended up middle," said pitching coach Pete Walker. "Those are the things that cost him today. Couple of seeing-eye ground balls in that first inning certainly didn't set the tone, but I'm sure he's frustrated with the pitch to Carter."

Carter's blast was his 19th of the season, and one of three Johnson would allow.

It was also a continuation of the troubles that the 29-year-old has struggled with over his past five outings, during which he's allowed a total of 16 runs in the first two innings.

Johnson settled down for stretches, including retiring eight in a row and 10 of 11. However, on either side of that streak were the home runs and six earned runs.

When Johnson was finally removed from the game after 5 2/3 innings, he had allowed seven earned runs on seven hits, two walks, and recorded eight strikeouts. The righty now sports a 6.08 ERA and a 1-7 record.

"He doesn't feel like he's giving his team a chance to win a game," Walker said. "That's where his frustration is right now."

"It was another tough outing," said Blue Jays skipper John Gibbons. "He's scuffling. That's an understatement. He's feeling it. He's human. You feel for the guy. He hasn't struggled a whole lot in his career. He's trying to settle in, he's trying to contribute, [but] it hasn't gone well for him."

The struggles have Johnson in a rut, something he's unfamiliar with. His current ERA is over two runs higher than in any season he's had as Major Leaguer in which he made more than three starts. It's something he's described as "definitely" the toughest stretch he's had as a professional.

"This game will definitely test you," Johnson said. "[My confidence is] not real high, but you have to stay positive. [You've] got to find a way to stay positive ... find a way to get through it and be better because of it."

Although Johnson's struggles led to the club's downfall on Saturday, it also highlighted the issue the Blue Jays have struggled with all season. Toronto's starting pitchers have the second-worst ERA in the Majors, with Saturday's contest marking the ninth time this season in which a starter has allowed three home runs.

Despite the big hole Johnson put the club in, the offense managed to keep the game within reach -- thanks, in large part, to a late rally.

Just as in Friday's game, the later innings seemed to awaken the Blue Jays' bats. Jose Bautista hit a three-run home run into the second deck in left field in the eighth, ending Astros starter Dallas Keuchel's afternoon and closing the deficit to 8-6.

Bautista's home run was Toronto's third of the contest, with both Mark DeRosa and Colby Rasmus also supplying solo shots.

"That's as good of a lineup as I've faced in my year and a half here," Keuchel said. "I was trying [not to be] too careful, but make some quality pitches. I had some good sink on my fastball today. But it's one of those things, [when] you make one mistake ... it's a three-run homer like it was out there.

"I feel like I made a good pitch to Bautista, and he was strong enough to get it out. That's what they're paid to do. I tip my cap to him, and [I'll] try to get back at [the Blue Jays] next time."

For Keuchel, the home runs were his primary issue. All but one of his six earned runs came via the long ball over his 7 1/3 innings on the mound.

DeRosa's home run in the second inning came on a first pitch cutter, landing in Toronto's bullpen in left field. The solo shot was his seventh of the season and 100th of his career.

With the loss, the Blue Jays are still searching for their first series win since July 5-7 against the Twins. They fell to 2-7 on the homestand.

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