Astros 3, Marlins 1

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MIAMI (AP)—If Jared Fernandez threw his knuckleball on the Florida Turnpike, every car would pass it.

But his 56-mph pitches were enough to frustrate the Florida Marlins early, and a 98-mph fastball from Billy Wagner finished them off, giving the Houston Astros a 3-1 victory Sunday.

Fernandez made a successful debut for Houston, combining with Wagner and two other hard-throwing relievers on a five-hitter. Fernandez, recalled Friday from Triple-A New Orleans, allowed one run and three hits in 5 1-3 innings.

“You don’t know how things are going to work out,” Houston manager Jimy Williams said. “The Marlins are a great team with tremendous speed and power, and they’re playing about as well as anybody in the National League.”

The Marlins went 7-2 on a homestand that has propelled them into the NL wild-card race, but they lost two of three games to Houston. The Astros won five of six in the season series.

“We don’t have to face them anymore,” Marlins manager Jack McKeon said, “except in the playoffs.”

Florida remained two games behind wild-card leader Philadelphia.

The Astros increased their lead in the NL Central to two games over St. Louis, and they head home after playing 14 of 17 games on the road since the All-Star break. Houston went 10-7 during the difficult stretch.

Orlando Merced hit his second home run of the season for the Astros, but pitching again saved them. They scored three or fewer runs for the 11th time in 13 games but have gone 6-7 during that span.

Fernandez (1-0) filled in for right-hander Roy Oswalt, who went on the disabled list Wednesday with a groin injury. The knuckleballer retired 11 in a row during one stretch with pitches mostly in the 56-65 mph range.

“They look so good to hit, they look like a basketball,” McKeon said. “The guys want to see how far they can hit it, and that’s not how it works.”

It was Fernandez’s first appearance in the majors since last September with Cincinnati.

“I’m happy to be part of a winning team,” he said. “I know what’s going on in the standings and that these games are important.”

Brad Lidge pitched 1 2-3 perfect innings, and Octavio Dotel followed with a 1-2-3 eighth. Wagner gave up two hits in the ninth but still earned his 33rd save in 36 chances.

Marlins leadoff hitter Juan Pierre said Fernandez’s floaters made Wagner’s pitches look like 110-mph fastballs.

“You get different ends of the spectrum,” Pierre said. “You have to sit back on the knuckleball, and then you have three guys throwing 95-plus. As major league hitters you’ve got to make the adjustment, and we didn’t do it.”

Mark Redman (9-5) allowed eight hits and three runs in eight innings. He threw 126 pitches on a 90-degree afternoon.

The Marlins’ best chance to rally came in the sixth. Trailing 3-1, they had runners at first and third with one out, but Brad Ausmus threw out Luis Castillo trying to steal second, and Ivan Rodriguez grounded out.

Rodriguez then was ejected for shouting at plate umpire Justin Klemm. It was his second ejection in a week but only the third of his career, he said.

“I feel bad because the fans come to see me and the Marlins play. They don’t come to see the umpire,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just going to keep my mouth shut so they don’t throw me out the rest of the season.”

Florida also threatened in the ninth against Wagner. Pierre reached on an infield single and Mike Lowell hit a two-out single, but Juan Encarnacion broke his bat on a 98-mph fastball and lined softly to short.

Pierre walked to lead off the first and stole second but was then picked off by Fernandez.

Houston scored in the second when Jeff Kent singled, Lance Berkman walked and Adam Everett hit an RBI single.

Merced’s homer leading off the third put the Astros ahead 2-1. Morgan Ensberg followed with a double and scored on Berkman’s two-out bloop single.

Miguel Cabrera singled home the only run off Fernandez in the second.

“It was a good homestand, but you’re only as good as your last game,” Pierre said. “Right now we’re kind of mad we didn’t push more runs acrossagainst that guy.”

Notes

Merced started in place of Richard Hidalgo, slowed by a strained hip. Hidalgo’s status is day-to-day. … The Astros have one complete game this season, which ties for the fewest in the majors. … Florida is batting .191 with the bases loaded this season. … With one scoreless inning by Armando Almanza, the Marlins’ bullpen extended its scoreless streak to 17 1-3 inningsover the past seven games.

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