Astros 7, Giants 3

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SAN FRANCISCO (AP)—Lance Berkman took two pratfalls while chasing Barry Bonds’ drives in the early innings, so he already knew the wind in right field could do strange things to a baseball.

In the ninth, it did the strangest thing of all, depositing Berkman’s fly ball in the stands and sending the Houston Astros to what might have been a season-saving win.

Berkman hit a three-run homer off Dustin Hermanson, and the Astros rallied from a late three-run deficit for a 7-3 victory over the San Francisco Giants on Thursday night.

Until an improbable five-run rally in the final inning, Houston was in danger of being swept and falling four games behind the Giants in the NL wild-card race. Instead, the Astros lingered 2 1/2 games behind the Chicago Cubs, who took a half-game lead over San Francisco for the wild card. The Giants also dropped 1 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West.

“This has been crazy,” said Berkman, who badly misplayed Bonds’ triple to right in the fifth, then fell on his backside while catching Bonds’ drive in the seventh. “It seems like every time we’re on the brink of destruction or elimination, something crazy happens.”

Even Berkman had trouble believing his good fortune on his 29th homer. With two runners on and nobody out, he put a lift into Hermanson’s pitch—and the skyscraping shot hung in the air, barely reaching the first row of seats in the elevated arcade on the right-field wall.

“My main thought there was that I wanted to get a good ball in the air,” he said. “When I initially hit it, I thought I got under it—but fortunately, I wasn’t too far under it.”

Carlos Beltran had three hits for the Astros, whose playoff hopes are about to get another charge: Roger Clemens will go for his 19th victory Friday night in the opener of a three-game series in Milwaukee.

“Don’t count us out. The Astronauts are still alive,” manager Phil Garner said. “You never know what’s going to happen. … It was a desperate game. Our staff kept us in it until we could finally do some damage.”

The Giants flopped for just their second loss in 11 games despite 7 1-3 dominant innings by Jason Schmidt, who was denied his 17th victory by Hermanson’s third blown save of the season.

After the Astros fell behind 3-0, Beltran walked to lead off the seventh and stole second and third before scoring on Berkman’s RBI single. Beltran, with 38 homers and 39 stolen bases, has a good chance to become the fourth 40-40 man in major league history. He would join Alex Rodriguez (1998), Barry Bonds (1996) and Jose Canseco (1988).

Schmidt left after pinch-hitter Morgan Ensberg’s grounder made it 3-2 in the eighth.

Beltran and Jeff Bagwell led off the ninth with singles—including Bagwell’s dribbler, which took an inexplicable 90-degree turn to stay fair down the third-base line—to set the stage for Berkman.

Hermanson (6-7) and Giants manager Felipe Alou were ejected when the reliever hit Jeff Kent with the next pitch. Both clubs had been warned after a bench-clearing incident in the third, when rookie Brandon Backe nearly hit Bonds with a low pitch.

“I’m not going to say anything about it,” said Hermanson, who might face a suspension. “I just didn’t do my job tonight. I was going for a ground ball with Berkman. The ball was down and in, and he golfed it out.”

Alou thought the pitch was too high, and Berkman couldn’t even remember. The Astros then added two more runs on Jason Lane’s RBI single and Raul Chavez’s sacrifice bunt.

Dan Miceli (6-6) got one out in the eighth. Brad Lidge pitched the ninth.

“We were three outs away from sweeping that team,” Alou said. “That is no easy task. Our starting pitching did a great job of keeping those guys down.”

Schmidt pitched five-hit ball into the eighth inning, and Bonds tripled and scored two runs before the Giants’ collapse. J.T. Snow hit two RBI doubles, but San Francisco lost its hold on the wild card for the first time in over a week.

San Francisco also gave a breather to the Dodgers, the Giants’ opponent in six of their final nine games.

Though there were no punches or ejections in the third, Bonds was incensed by the low throw, gesturing emphatically toward Backe and nearly sticking his fingers in the mask of home plate umpire Mike Reilly.

“We’ve got no beef with Barry Bonds,” Garner said. “We’ve got absolutely no reason to hit anybody on that ballclub. … That’s the thing. We didn’t start it, but (a bench-clearing incident) might end up hurting them.”

Bonds finished 1-for-2 with two walks and two runs scored.

Schmidt, once the strong favorite for the NL Cy Young Award, was back in dominant form after winning just once in his previous six starts. He had eight strikeouts, giving him 240 for the season—the second-most in San Francisco history behind Juan Marichal’s 248 in 1963.

“Every loss is important, but we’re playing good baseball, and we’re not going to get down,” Schmidt said. “They caught some breaks tonight.”

Notes

After Beltran’s first-inning triple, Schmidt retired 16 of Houston’s next 17 hitters. … The Giants still aren’t certain who will pitch Saturday’s game against the Dodgers. … Beltran has 25 stolen bases with the Astros. He also had 14 with Kansas City in the AL.

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