To a large extent, every series is critical for a contending club such as the Giants. "We'll be saying that the rest of the year, where we are," manager Bruce Bochy said.
Still, center fielder Aaron Rowand indicated that the star power of the upcoming competition can't be ignored.
"It's obviously a tough stretch of games against quality teams -- teams you can test yourself against, being where we are in the standings," Rowand said. "I think everybody has the confidence that with our starting pitching, we can be competitive and have a chance to win every [series]."
For that very reason, losing two of three games to the woeful Astros (28-45) wasn't what the Giants had in mind when they arrived here. In five previous series when Tim Lincecum, Barry Zito and Cain were scheduled to pitch, the Giants went 12-3 as their top three starters personally combined for a 10-3 record with a 1.92 ERA.
Lincecum did his part as San Francisco captured Tuesday's series opener, allowing an unearned run in eight innings. But Zito lasted a season-worst four innings Wednesday while allowing five runs. Cain also turned in his shortest outing of the season.
"We happened to have back-to-back off days by two starters who have been throwing the ball great all year," Bochy said.
Cain complained that he never worked himself into favorable counts to be able to throw his secondary pitches. Astros left fielder Carlos Lee, whose first-inning, two-out double preceded Hunter Pence's three-run homer, confirmed that Houston's hitters tried to prevent Cain from establishing control.
"That's a guy that throws a lot of strikes, so ... everybody was aggressive and we made sure we got a fastball and went out and swung," Lee said.
Cain had posted an 0.92 ERA in his previous six starts and entered the game with the NL's fourth-best ERA, 2.16. That rose to 2.72 after the Astros knocked him around. Cain's woes continued in the second inning as Astros catching prospect Jason Castro belted his first Major League home run and Lance Berkman added a two-run double. Michael Bourn's third-inning RBI double finished Cain, who fully expected to keep thriving.
"You don't sit there and wait for a bad day to come," Cain said. "You keep going out there like you're going to pitch well or you're going to hit well."
Giants hitters must share Cain's outlook, particularly after Thursday's indignities. Ignoring the 7-0 deficit, they put their first two runners safely aboard in each inning from the fourth through seventh. But double-play grounders blunted their momentum in the first three innings of that span.
"Nobody's trying to hit into them," Bochy said. "We know that with this club, we'll have a few more than usual, the way we've been set up. [But] I don't want them to get in their minds where they're thinking not to hit into one. That's going to compound the problem."
The Giants generated enough offense to make matters competitive. Pat Burrell socked a two-run homer in the fourth inning. Pinch-hitter Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff rapped RBI singles in the seventh. In the ninth, Edgar Renteria's RBI single and pinch-hitter Travis Ishikawa's single brought the potential go-ahead run to the plate with one out. Astros closer Matt Lindstrom responded by coaxing a popup from Huff and striking out Juan Uribe.
If it's any comfort to the Giants, the Astros felt fortunate to scratch out a series victory.
"This is a tough team," Berkman said of the Giants. "I expect they're going to be in contention the whole year."