HOUSTON - Charlie Manuel leaned forward slightly in his chair. His manner suggested a hitter who was expecting a fastball and now saw it coming, straight down the middle of the plate.

"I thought that was the best I've seen [Adam Eaton] pitch since I've been here," the manager said. "He had his best stuff and he kept it. He was aggressive."

The spoiler, of course, was that for all that, the Phillies lost to the Astros last night, 4-3, at Minute Maid Park.

Eaton pitched seven innings, allowing three runs on eight hits. He was pretty darn good.

Houston's Brandon Backe was better. At one point, he retired 15 straight batters and a furious Phillies rally - during which Astros closer Jose Valverde almost lost more than his streak of 18 consecutive scoreless appearances - fell short.

Eaton is now winless in his first 10 starts of the season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Phillies' record for most winless starts to begin a season is held by Ken Reynolds, who started the 1972 season in the bullpen and then made 16 straight starts from May 29 through Aug. 25 without earning a victory.

Eaton wasn't doing jumping jacks afterward.

"I went out there and I had some success early," he said. "I got ahead of the hitters. When you get into the seventh inning, regardless, that means you gave your team a chance to win. There are no exceptions to that rule."

For much of the night, Eaton got the Astros batters to hit fly balls harmlessly to the wide-open spaces in center and right.

Rightfielder Hunter Pence provided an exception with a pair of solo homers.

The first tied the score at 1-1 in the fifth, a slicing drive that sneaked just inside the foul pole and just above the fence. The second put Houston ahead, a no-doubt-about-it shot into the short porch in left in the seventh.

"Those were both fastballs up and over the plated," Eaton said. "If you ask him, they were probably just what he wanted."

Even though Eaton (0-3) gave up an insurance run in the seventh, he still pitched well enough to win on most nights.

But the Phillies' hitters looked clueless for much of the night, especially after Pat Burrell homered in the second, and they came up empty after getting runners on first and second with one out in the third.

"Backe pitched a tremendous game," Manuel said. "He changed speeds real good and once he got ahead of us, he did a number on us. We got impatient and started swinging at balls on the ground."

Backe (4-5) weakened slightly in the eighth. Greg Dobbs, hitting for Eaton, doubled with one out and went to third when Jimmy Rollins followed with a single up the middle. Backe got a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 41,152 as Astros manager Cecil Cooper waved Doug Brocail in from the bullpen.

Rollins immediately stole second to put the tying run in scoring position, but Brocail worked out of the jam. And after Houston tacked on yet another run in the eighth, the Astros appeared to have the game well in hand with Valverde taking over in the ninth.

But the game got scary in more ways than one. Burrell led off with a double and went to third when Geoff Jenkins grounded out.

Then third baseman Pedro Feliz ripped a line drive right back at Valverde. Burrell scored, but a hush fell over the crowd as Valverde fell in a heap.

"I thought he was seriously hurt," Manuel said. "He went down quick."

Feliz crouched at first, a concerned look on his face.

"I wasn't happy," he said. "It looked like he was hurt. It didn't look good."

Amazingly, the ball apparently hit Valverde's glove and just missed hitting him squarely in the shoulder or the face. He got a huge round of applause when it became apparent he was going to stay in the game.

Carlos Ruiz singled to put runners on first and second. With two outs, Rollins doubled to right. Now the Phillies were within one with the tying run on third and the go-ahead run on second.

Valverde, however, was able to buckle down and get Shane Victorino to fly out, ending the Phillies' three-game winning streak.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether last night's start signals a turnaround for Eaton or whether it's just a hiccup.

Asked Thursday whether Eaton - who had a 6.29 earned run average last year and an ERA that was 5.59 and climbing going into last night - was in danger of pitching himself out of the rotation, Manuel ducked.

"Sooner or later, we've got to get some wins out of his slot," he said. "We need to see something. We need to start winning some of his games. And I think Adam definitely knows that."

It's not the manager's style to challenge his players in the public prints, so that almost certainly wasn't the intention.

Whatever the reason, though, Eaton pitched well. His best game ever as a Phillie, according to Manuel. Why hadn't he been able to do this before?

"I don't know," the manager said. *