HOUSTON -- One night after shutting out their opponent for the ninth time this season, the Rangers slipped back into Apocalypse Now mode, trying to figure out their starting rotation.
The seesaw pattern continued on a cool Tuesday evening after Matt Harrison began experiencing back stiffness and had to come out of the game in the second inning of what turned into an 8-0 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
Harrison left trailing, 3-0, against Astros left-hander Dallas Keuchel. The Rangers' lefty was replaced by long reliever Justin Germano, who tried to eat some innings, keep it close and save the bullpen. But he ended up allowing five runs in 3 1/3 innings, and the Rangers had a 10-game winning streak at Minute Maid Park come to an end. Texas is faced with losing its first series against Houston since June 2008.
Harrison was supposed to pitch again on Sunday against the Blue Jays, but Robbie Ross will likely take that spot. Ross, who last pitched on Sunday against the Red Sox, had been pushed back to next Tuesday behind Colby Lewis and Harrison, so it shouldn't be too difficult to slot him back in on Sunday if needed.
"That's Plan A," manager Ron Washington said as the Rangers get ready to figure out what to do next with their besieged rotation.
"We've got a starter for tomorrow, and we'll fight through it," Washington said. "There are still games on the schedule to be played and we'll play them. We'll get some bodies up here that can function."
The Rangers were already planning to make a roster move on Wednesday. Nick Tepesch is being called up to replace Martin Perez, who is missing at least one start and possibly more because of discomfort in his left elbow. The Rangers haven't decided whether to place Perez on the disabled list, but that move appears to be likely.
The Rangers are off on both Thursday and Monday, so they can operate with only four starters until May 24 against the Tigers in Detroit. By then Joe Saunders could be an option. He is on the DL with a stress fracture in his left ankle but is scheduled to throw about 90 pitches on Thursday in an appearance for Triple-A Round Rock at Iowa.
The Rangers' pitching depth has been stretched to the limit because of injuries, but they still have a couple of options in Triple-A. Veteran right-hander Scott Baker, who cleared outright waivers last week and chose to accept the assignment rather than become a free agent, is 4-1 with a 3.32 ERA in six starts at Round Rock, while left-hander Ryan Feierabend is 4-3 with a 4.63 ERA in eight starts.
"We're a long way from being out of anything," Washington said. "We've got to keep playing. We'll get some healthy bodies up here until we can get into our rhythm."
Germano was called up on Thursday to help take some of the load off the bullpen. But he threw 81 pitches on Tuesday night and could be unavailable for the next three days. The Rangers could take him off the roster if they need to add a fresh arm on Wednesday. Neftali Feliz is one of the options they could consider, but it's more likely that they'll keep him in Round Rock to continue his work.
"We're probably going to need an arm so we'll just see what is available," Washington said.
The Astros didn't have to worry about an early exit by their starter. Keuchel had never beaten the Rangers before but ended up throwing his first career shutout. He allowed seven hits, did not walk a batter and struck out seven. He also got the Rangers to hit into four double plays.
"You look at what he was able to do tonight, I think the most impressive factor for me was regardless of what the score was he just kept pitching," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "He didn't say, 'We're up, 8-0. Just let me try to get through this.' That there is the complete maturation of not losing focus and continuing to pitch regardless of situation."
Keuchel was 0-2 with a 4.75 ERA in five career starts against the Rangers before Tuesday night.
"It feels great," Keuchel said. "I would be lying if I said it didn't feel good, especially against that type of offense. I thought I was going to run into trouble there a couple of innings because they were beating the shift or hitting it off the cup and getting doubles. They're paid a lot of money for that reason and I escaped some damage and got lucky."
The Rangers could use some of that luck for their rotation right now.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.