HOUSTON - Adam Eaton made one of his best starts in a Phillies uniform tonight at Minute Maid Park.

He still lost.

He allowed three runs in seven innings in a 4-3 loss to the Houston Astros that snapped the Phillies' winning streak at three games and kept them from picking up a game on the Florida Marlins, who lead the National League East.

"I thought that was the best I've seen him pitch since I've been here," manager Charlie Manuel said. "I thought that was the best stuff I've seen him have, and he kept it. He was aggressive."

"He had a purpose with every pitch," pitching coach Rich Dubee said.

Eaton remains a riddle. He showed tonight that he can pitch effectively against a talented lineup. But the $24.5 million question lingers: Why can't he pitch like this more often?

In 40 starts with the Phillies since he signed a three-year contract Nov. 30, 2006, Eaton is 10-13 with a 6.22 ERA. He is 0-3 with a 5.37 ERA after 10 starts. The Elias Sports Bureau said the franchise record for most starts without a win to start a season is 16, when Ken Reynolds went from May 29 to Aug. 25, 1972, without a win.

"This is much more of who I am," Eaton said. "I was able to throw all my pitches for strikes and get ahead of guys. I was able to get out there and minimize my pitch counts early in the game. Consistency of delivery obviously is going to be a huge factor in that, and tonight I felt comfortable."

Eaton had three quality starts to open the season, but he is 0-3 with a 6.06 ERA in his last seven.

He allowed two home runs to Astros rightfielder Hunter Pence, one to right field in the fifth and another to left in the seventh to give the Astros a 2-1 lead. He allowed another run in the seventh.

If Eaton remains in the rotation, he could get another 50 starts before his contract expires. Before the game, Phillies general manager Pat Gillick tried to sound optimistic that Eaton could pitch better.

"I think you always have to remain upbeat and positive about your players," he said.

He said Eaton's spot in the rotation is up to Manuel and Dubee. "That's their call if they want to use somebody else," Gillick said.

"We need more production out of the first slot, too," he said of Brett Myers. "The only one we're getting consistent production from is [Cole] Hamels. You could get better production out of all four."

Tonight, they got production from their fifth starter. They hope for some production from their opening-day starter tomorrow night.

Contact staff writer Todd Zolecki at 215-854-4874 or tzolecki@phillynews.com. Read his blog at http://go.philly.com/phillieszone.