ARLINGTON -- The Rangers have issues across the board, from a bullpen increasingly being overworked to a batting order that is being made up nightly on the fly by manager Ron Washington.
But the manager believes there is one issue that stands out above all else. Starting pitching.
"Of course our offense has to grind it out and I think it will," Washington said. "If we can straighten out the starting pitching and put less work on the bullpen, I think everything else will straighten out."
Straightening out the starting pitching remains a daunting task. They sent starter No. 12 to the mound on Tuesday night but Phil Irwin had trouble controlling his first-inning jitters, gave up two runs right away and the Rangers spent the rest of the night trying futilely to chase down the Astros.
They were unable to do so as the Astros pulled away to an 8-3 victory and now the Rangers are just one game out of last place after their 17th loss in the last 20 games.
"We're fighting, we're playing," outfielder Alex Rios said. "We're coming here to play every day, every night and we're going to keep doing it with what we have. You just play the game the right way and if you do it right, it's going to come. Good things are going to happen. You just can't force things in this game. You just have to play it."
The Rangers have now lost two straight to the Astros this week and five of eight to them this season. They were 36-7 against the Astros over the past the past five seasons, including 17-2 in 2013.
"It's nice to beat them this year after last year they beat up on us pretty good," said designated hitter Chris Carter, who hit two home runs on Tuesday. "We're having success this year against them and I'm happy about that."
Irwin, who was the 1,000th player to appear in a game in the history of the Washington/Texas franchise, went four-plus innings and allowed three runs, six hits, two walks and two strikeouts.
Rangers starters are now 24-36 on the season with a 4.93 ERA that is the highest of any rotation in the American League. They have a 6.54 ERA in their last 20 games averaging 5.3 innings per start. Rangers starters have pitched at least six innings in just eight of those 20 games.
Irwin's chances of going that deep were scuttled by throwing 33 pitches in a strange first inning. During that inning, Irwin faced seven batters and didn't get an out until the seventh and final batter.
"Basically just came down to the first inning and I kind of wasted all my pitches there," Irwin said. "I was overthrowing out of the gate and command was bad. After that, after I went in and sat for a while, I calmed down and came out and felt like I threw the ball well."
Jose Altuve opened the first inning with a single up the middle and then stole second base with Robbie Grossman at the plate. Irwin then struck out Grossman on a 2-2 curve that catcher Chris Gimenez blocked in the dirt. Grossman broke for first but Gimenez got too obsessed over making sure Altuve didn't advance. He took too long to throw to first and Grossman ended up being safe.
"I absolutely messed that up," Gimenez said. "It's nobody's fault but mine. It wasn't one of my finer moments. There is nothing to say except I screwed up."
Irwin walked George Springer to load the bases. Gimenez, with Jonathan Singleton at the plate, made up for his gaffe by picking off Altuve at third, then a wild pitch moved the runners to second and third.
Singles by Singleton and Matt Dominguez drove home two runs and Irwin hit Chris Carter to load the bases. But he got out of it by getting Chris Corporan to hit into an inning-ending double play.
"I just need to trust myself and not feeling like I've got to do more than I already have to get here," Irwin said. "That's what happened in the first inning. Just trying to throw it harder and blow it past people, and that's not my game -- locate and change speeds. Same thing happened last year when I debuted in Pittsburgh. Just bad energy."
The only other run Irwin gave up was a home from George Springer to lead off the fourth. The Astros added five against the Rangers bullpen, which was needed for another five innings.
"It's always a challenge when your starters give you 4-5 innings," Washington said. "You try not to overuse guys but it's hard to do. Irwin did keep us in the ballgame. He threw a lot of pitches and he was nervous in the beginning but he settled down. But when he got the ball too much over the plate they hit it."
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.