HOUSTON -- Not even a pep talk about hitting from the manager could help the Cubs.
Jason Castro and Chris Johnson each hit three-run homers off Matt Garza to power the Astros to an 8-4 victory Monday night over the Cubs, who lost their seventh in a row, a season high.
Once again, the Cubs couldn't muster any offense against a starting pitcher, scoring all of their runs in the ninth.
"It's unreal," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. "It's almost a fluke not scoring any runs off a starting pitcher. I don't know how many innings it is now."
They did score one run in the first Friday against White Sox right-hander Philip Humber but John Danks and Jake Peavy held them scoreless over 6 1/3 innings each Saturday and Sunday. The last time they scored more than one run off a starter was the fourth inning last Wednesday when Alfonso Soriano hit a two-run homer off the Phillies' Kyle Kendrick.
Garza (2-2) served up seven runs on five hits over three innings, his shortest outing since last July 7, when he was pulled after giving up seven runs over two innings against the Nationals."That's not the Matt Garza I've seen," Sveum said. "He got out of whack somehow."
The White Sox blanked the Cubs, 6-0, on Sunday, but the Cubs avoided being shut out when Reed Johnson delivered a pinch-hit RBI single in the ninth. David DeJesus followed with an RBI single and Blake Lalli's first career hit drove in two. Chicago has been outscored 48-25 in its last seven games.
The Cubs had their normal pre-series meeting Monday, and Sveum addressed them about hitting as well. The message?
"Stay relaxed," DeJesus said. "He wants us to see more pitches and as a team, we swing early in the counts. See the pitches, work the count, get into the at-bat and feel comfortable in the at-bat and then you can use that at-bat later in the game."
Cubs hitters haven't been able to put together consistent, quality at-bats, combining for a .214 average in the previous five games.
"It's been weird," Sveum said. "You understand if it's against [good] stuff [by a pitcher]. We all know the elite pitchers are the elite because they get people out, they make people look bad. When it's against average stuff, you're like, 'Look, what's going on?' You're locked in for eight at-bats, and then it goes for eight. It's been strange that way."
Looking for an edge, Sveum loaded the lineup with left-handed hitters against Bud Norris (5-1), hoping the right-hander would alter his approach. It didn't work. Norris struck out eight over seven scoreless innings.
"I've been learning," Norris said. "That's something across my career that I've had to get better at, is getting left-handers out."
"It was one of those things where you couldn't get momentum, we couldn't get that first run on the board," DeJesus said. "We get the first run on the board in the last inning, and score four. It's one of those things where we just can't get it early, but we get it late, but we need it early."
Jason Castro connected with two on and two outs in the Houston second off an 0-2 pitch from Garza. Carlos Lee added a two-out RBI single in the third to make it 4-0, and Garza then walked Brian Bogusevic.
That prompted a visit from Sveum. Garza then served up a home run to Johnson, launching a 2-1 pitch 429 feet to center to take a 7-0 lead.
"It was a bad meeting, by the way," Sveum said. "I told him to pitch the way you pitch and get ahead and go to work."
Garza had given up three home runs in 45 1/3 innings in his seven previous starts. The seven runs off him are the most charged to a Cubs starter this year.
"It was way too much stuff and I left everything up," Garza said. "Hanging slider to Castro, fastball middle, belt-high to Johnson. I was overthrowing everything. I put myself in holes and when you put yourself in holes, you can't make a mistake and you have to be perfect, and not even perfect, but you can't leave it out over the plate."
He didn't blame the poor outing on a layoff caused by the flu.
"This was trying too hard, trying to stop [stuff] that's been going on, and if you try too hard, you're not going to stop it, you're just going to continue it, and that's exactly what happened," Garza said. "I'll get ready for Pittsburgh and get right back at it and come out [ticked] off with a vengence. I don't like it at all, I know my teammates don't like it at all. This is not what I work for four days a week. I'll get back at it and not change anything, just get back to work."
Randy Wells saved the bullpen by pitching five innings in relief. The Cubs are in their longest skid since they dropped eight in a row May 30-June 7, 2011.
"When you lose, it's usually a number of things," Sveum said. "You have to give up runs to lose, you have to not score many runs, and we're doing a little of both in different fashions on a different day.
"Today was closer than it sounds when you look at the box score," he said. "The only thing we're probably doing well is playing pretty good defense. That doesn't do us any good if we're not going to score runs off starting pitchers and get a lead early."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.