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HOU@MIL: Braun jacks a two-run homer to left-center

MILWAUKEE -- This was a boxing match as much as a baseball game, each side trying to wear down the other.

The Brewers belted three more home runs to pad their National League-leading total, but the Astros landed the decisive late-inning punches and won a long series finale, 7-5, at Miller Park on Wednesday.

Houston beat Milwaukee's increasingly beleaguered middle relief corps to avoid a three-game sweep, and snapped a streak of 11 consecutive losses to the Brewers that dated back to last July.

"That was definitely a fistfight out there for both teams," catcher Jonathan Lucroy said. "We kind of traded blows throughout the game, and they came out on top. I think they're very underrated. They have a fairly young team, and I think they're going to be good down the road. If you make mistakes, they will punish you."

Yet this was no pitching clinic. Starters J.A. Happ of Houston and Shaun Marcum of Milwaukee each lasted only five innings, each surrendered four runs (only three of Marcum's were earned), each uncorked a run-scoring wild pitch and each struggled for nearly every out. They combined to face 52 batters, and 22 reached safely.

In all, the starters needed 202 pitches to record 30 outs -- 103 pitches for Happ and 99 for Marcum. The first inning spanned 30 minutes, and the first four innings took one hour and 40 minutes to complete.

"It was a fight," manager Ron Roenicke said. "I thought [Marcum] had one real good inning."

That was the third, when Marcum retired the Astros in order on nine pitches. It was his only easy inning. He threw 26 pitches in the first inning, 21 in the second, 26 in the fourth and 17 in the fifth. He had to escape bases-loaded jams in the first and the fourth to avoid a blowup.

"You could see him frustrated out on the mound," Roenicke said. "His command isn't where it usually is. He was up in the zone a lot. Then he has that one good inning, and I thought, 'OK, he's got it going, and he'll roll into the next inning.' He didn't. It was back to the battle again.

"He kept us in the ballgame. He certainly gave us a chance to win."

Marcum had been solid in his first three outings, meeting the definition of "quality start" (at least six innings, three earned runs or fewer) in all of them. On Wednesday he slipped into deficits of one run in the first inning and two runs in the second.

He did not talk to reporters about Wednesday's outing.

"We felt like he made some mistakes, and we didn't miss them," said Astros left fielder J.D. Martinez, who had three hits and three RBIs. "We were aggressive early but patient; we weren't swinging at a lot of his junk in the dirt. We were just laying off a lot of his good pitches and making him throw strikes, and when he did throw strikes, we made him pay."

Ryan Braun hit a two-run homer and scored two runs, and Travis Ishikawa added a solo homer as the teams played to a 4-4 tie after three innings. The score remained tied into the seventh, when Astros right fielder Brian Bogusevic doubled off reliever Jose Veras, stole third and scored when Chris Snyder, played to pull, instead poked a two-out, opposite-field single down the right-field line for a one-run lead.

Snyder entered the day batting .080 but reached safely three times with a pair of singles and a hit-by-pitch.

"Lucky for him," Lucroy said of Snyder's go-ahead hit. "They've gotten some cheap hits off [Veras] lately, but that's the game. What are you going to do? We've won games on those kinds of hits before. You can't really do anything about it."

Veras had been one of Milwaukee's most reliable relievers until this week. He surrendered three runs on four hits in Monday's series opener, a game the Brewers held on to win.

The Astros padded their lead in the eighth inning against Mike McClendon, who surrendered hits to the first three men he faced, including Jose Altuve, who had four hits on the day, and Martinez, who delivered a two-run single that represented the winning margin after Corey Hart hit a late home run for the Brewers.

Hart leads the Brewers with six home runs and 13 RBIs, a bright spot for an offense that showed signs of life throughout the three-game series against the Astros.

The bullpen is another matter.

The Brewers have the NL's worst bullpen ERA, at 4.92. Entering the day, Brewers relievers were third-worst in opponents' batting average, at .287. It's one reason the Brewers have averaged the NL's longest games and are tied with Houston for the most three-hour games so far this season, with 12.

"I have confidence those guys are going to get better," Roenicke said of his relief corps. "They have to have some good outings so they get confident."

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