Pirates 4, Astros 3

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PITTSBURGH (AP)—Mike Williams gave the Pittsburgh Pirates yet another scare. What manager Lloyd McClendon appreciated was he gave them yet another save.

Jeff Suppan overcame a shaky start and Williams had yet another shaky finish, but the Pirates came back from an early two-run deficit to beat the Houston Astros 4-3 Saturday night.

Suppan (7-7) repeatedly pitched out of trouble in his second consecutive strong outing and added a run-scoring double. The Pirates won their third in a row since the Reds rallied in the late innings on consecutive nights to beat them Tuesday and Wednesday.

Williams took the loss Wednesday, giving up two runs in the ninth, then gave up two more runs Thursday before working out of a two-on, none-out jam to preserve an 8-7 victory. He also finished up Friday as the Pirates beat Houston 3-2.

McClendon rarely uses any reliever, much less his closer, in four consecutive games, but made an exception with Williams. The right-hander gave up Geoff Blum’s homer down the right-field line with one out, but got the final two outs despite walking Lance Berkman.

“He told me before the game he could pitch,” McClendon said. “As it got closer to the ninth inning, I kept asking (pitching coach) Spin Williams about every two minutes, `Is he OK? You think he’ll be able to pitch?”’

Williams has an odd mix of statistics; he has a 6.29 ERA and has allowed 21 runs in 20 appearances at PNC Park, yet has converted 24 of 28 save opportunities.

“That (the homer) surprised me because I didn’t think he would be swinging at the first pitch,” Williams said. “But it didn’t bother me. I still had the lead and I was confident I could get two outs before they got another run.”

The Pirates overcame the Astros’ two-run first inning by scoring three runs on four straight hits to start their half of the first against spot starter Kirk Saarloos (2-1), and Suppan took over from there.

Houston lost its eighth in 11 games to fall one game back of division leader St. Louis in the NL Central. The Pirates are 6 1/2 game back, but have only five fewer losses than the Cardinals.

Suppan, who gave up two runs and eight hits, was helped by some excellent plays by an often inconsistent defense. Shortstop Jack Wilson made a diving stop of Berkman’s grounder and, while on his stomach, flipped the ball from his glove to second baseman Jeff Reboulet for a force out to end the Astros’ third.

Wilson also made an excellent stop deep in the hole at short to throw out Richard Hidalgo to strand runners on second and third in the seventh. Center fielder Kenny Lofton also ranged far to his right to run down Morgan Ensberg’s one-out fly ball in the fifth.

Berkman had a two-run double in the first to end Suppan’s streak of 13 consecutive scoreless innings, but the Astros left 11 runners on and were 1-for-14 with runners in scoring position.

“Every inning there was somebody on, but the defense was tremendous and it helped me get through this because it was a battle for me,” said Suppan, who pitched a four-hit shutout of Colorado on Sunday.

Mike Lincoln followed Suppan with a scoreless eighth despite allowing Orlando Merced’s leadoff double.

Given the 2-0 lead, Saarloos didn’t need long to lose it in his first start since May 11, with Brian Giles tying it with a two-run double and Aramis Ramirez following with a go-ahead single. Lofton and Jason Kendall started the first-inning rally with singles.

“He pitched well—after the first four batters,” Astros manager Jimy Williams said.

Saarloos, who had made 17 straight relief appearances following two early May starts, settled down to retire 11 of the next 12 batters. With two outs in the fourth, Reboulet’s grounder deflected off third base for a double and Suppan, a .300 hitter, doubled for his first career extra-base hit, chasing Saarloos.

“Once I smoothed it (his delivery) out and slowed it down, I made a lot better pitches,” Saarloos said. “Too bad it took three runs for me to do it.”

Mike Gallo, Ricky Stone and Brad Lidge followed Saarloos to combine for 41-3 scoreless innings.

Notes

The Pirates have won six of nine. … Ramirez had two hits after going 3-for-33. It appeared home plate umpire Lance Barksdale, at Williams’ request, told Ramirez to remove a bulky protective device on his left elbow in the third. After Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon intervened, Ramirez kept wearing the elbow guard. Center fielder Craig Biggio then slid on his right knee to make a catch of Ramirez’s long drive to left-center … Saarloos has allowed 15earned runs in 10 innings in his three starts.

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