Astros 7, Braves 4

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HOUSTON (AP)—Lance Berkman was glad he could finally help out Andy Pettitte.

Berkman homered twice and made a pinpoint throw to the plate to get Pettitte out of a jam Thursday night, leading the Houston Astros to a 7-4 win over the slumping Atlanta Braves.

Pettitte (5-7) tied a season-high with eight strikeouts and won for just the second time in his last five starts.

Berkman said the Astros haven’t done enough lately to aid their lefty ace. He made up for it by himself on Thursday with a solo shot and a three-run blast, his second multihomer game of the season and 16th of his career.

“We’ve expected him to keep other teams held down and we haven’t really given him a cushion to work with,” said Berkman, who also homered twice in the Astros’ 8-0 win at San Francisco on April 13. “He pitches pretty well and it’s good to put him at ease for once.”

Pettitte appreciated it.

“They know I’ve been going through a rough stretch and they tried to pick me up,” Pettitte said. “They did a great job tonight.”

Backup first baseman Mike Lamb also homered and Orlando Palmeiro added a pinch-hit two-run single as the Astros won their third straight after five consecutive losses.

Dan Wheeler struck out the side in the eighth and Brad Lidge pitched a perfect ninth for his 16th save.

Jeff Francouer and Chipper Jones homered for the Braves, who were coming off a 2-8 homestand. Jones also had an RBI single and made a diving catch to rob Craig Biggio of a hit in the fifth.

Francouer broke a scoreless tie in the fourth, hitting a 2-2 pitch from Pettitte off the brick facade in left field. Francouer’s 12th homer was just his 17th hit in his last 76 at-bats.

Berkman answered in the bottom of the inning, crushing a 2-0 pitch from Braves starter John Thomson (2-6) into the balcony in left-center field. Berkman’s 17th homer—and the 14th he’s hit left-handed—banged off the top of an old-fashioned gas pump that keeps a tally on all the homers hit by Astros at 7-year-old Minute Maid Park. Berkman’s blast was No. 670.

Pettitte struck out Todd Pratt and Thomson to open the fifth, then gave up consecutive singles to Marcus Giles, Edgar Renteria and Jones. Giles scored on Jones’ sharp single to center, his seventh hit off Pettitte in 18 career at-bats.

Francouer opened the sixth with a single to right and went to third on Matt Diaz’s single. Pettitte then walked Brian Jordan on four pitches to load the bases and draw a visit from pitching coach Jim Hickey.

Pettitte was close to 100 pitches by then and was tiring quickly. With just one win since May 14, he was fighting self-doubt, too.

“I’d be lying if I sat here and said I felt extremely confident when they got guys on base,” he said. “It’s been a battle just to keep good, positive thoughts in my head.”

That’s when Berkman bailed him out.

Pettitte fanned Pratt again before Thomson hit a liner to Berkman in right field. Francouer tagged up after the catch, but Berkman fired a perfect throw to Brad Ausmus, who briefly bobbled the ball. Francouer crashed into Ausmus, but the catcher hung on, showing the ball to umpire Paul Nauert.

“You’re trying to corral it, tag the guy and get hit all at once,” Ausmus said.

If he could do it again, Francouer said he would’ve tried to slide around Ausmus, rather than run into him.

“It was a bang-bang play. Nice throw by Berkman,” he said. “It was a chance we had to take in that situation.”

Braves manager Bobby Cox briefly protested, claiming Ausmus never controlled the ball. But the call stood and the inning was over—much to Pettitte’s relief.

“Obviously, Lance had a big game for us,” Pettitte said. “He made a great throw. That was huge.”

Willy Taveras and Lamb started the sixth with singles before Berkman launched a 2-2 pitch from Thomson deep to right. Francouer scaled the wall, but couldn’t reach it.

Chris Reitsma replaced Thomson, but walked Morgan Ensberg and Preston Wilson to keep the Astros’ rally alive. Ensberg and Wilson moved into scoring position on Ausmus’ sacrifice bunt before Palmeiro, batting for Pettitte, ripped a two-run single to center for a 6-2 lead.

“That gave us a lot of breathing room and we needed it,” Garner said.

Jones cut Houston’s lead in half in the seventh, homering to left off Chad Qualls after Renteria singled. Jones hadn’t homered since May 31.

Lamb, batting .359 in 10 games since May 25, hit his fourth homer of the season in the seventh off Oscar Villareal.


Biggio doubled in the third inning, the 626th of his career. He ranks ninth on the all-time list, now 14 behind Honus Wagner. … The Braves won five of six meetings with the Astros last season before losing to Houston in the NLDS. …The roof at Minute Maid Park was closed for the seventh straight game. It was open at the start of last Friday’s loss to Cincinnati, but it was rolled shut during the sixth inning as a storm approached.

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