Johnson's big blast boosts Astros, Norris

Johnson's big blast boosts Astros, Norris

HOUSTON -- There was the throwing error in the first inning that led to a run and there was a pair of strikeouts in his first two at-bats, including one that came with runners on second and third base and one out. Simply put, Chris Johnson was having a night to forget.

Instead of drowning in the misery and completely losing focus, Johnson instead turned his attention to what he was going to do if he got a chance at sweet redemption. But even he couldn't have envisioned it would have been quite this gratifying.

Johnson hit a mammoth three-run home run in the sixth inning Thursday night to send the streaking Astros to their 14th win in 18 games, 3-2 over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the series opener at Minute Maid Park.

"The rest of my game was awful," said Johnson, who went 1-for-4 with three strikeouts. "I put Bud [Norris] in a hole in the first inning by making an error, and then [Andre] Ethier hit a homer. Bud pitched well except for that one pitch. I was glad I could do something to help us out after that."

The homer made a winner out of Norris, who gave up three hits and two runs (one earned because of the Johnson error) and struck out seven batters in six innings. Norris (7-8) has won five of his last six decisions, and the Astros have won eight of his last nine starts.

"The first inning, I couldn't find my groove," Norris said. "Obviously, Ethier is one of the better hitters in the league, and he took a pitch out. I tried to settle in from there and put up zeros. The second and third innings, I battled, but I kind of got in a groove and I'm glad I got through six. I know my pitch count was high early, but I'm trying to pitch as deep as I can in that game."

Norris threw 113 pitches, escaping jams in the third and fifth innings. He didn't have a 1-2-3 inning until he mowed the Dodgers down in the sixth.

"The whole thing seemed to be a battle for him and getting a high pitch count to boot," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "The thing about the last inning, it seemed like he came after guys a lot more. I don't know if he felt it was getting late in the game and he felt this was it and let it go. He came right after the guys."

Dodgers starter Ted Lilly, who entered the game with a 7-1 record and a 2.19 ERA against the Astros, carried a 2-0 lead into the sixth inning before the Astros rallied.

Hunter Pence reached out and poked an 0-2 pitch into left field for a leadoff single, and Carlos Lee followed with a walk. After Jason Michaels flied out, Johnson crushed a Lilly fastball and sent it 417 feet off a light tower in left field, high above the railroad tracks, to put the Astros ahead, 3-2.

"Inheriting two strikeouts is not a good way to start out the game," Johnson said. "But that at-bat, I was trying to battle. I screwed up the at-bat before with guys at second and third with one out and didn't get any of those guys in, so with guys on, I wanted to come up with the big hit, and I did."

Johnson, who leads National League rookies in batting average this year, hit the ball so well he didn't even watch it sail over the tracks. He put his head down and began running and later told hitting coach Jeff Bagwell he didn't even feel it hit his bat.

"It's one of those you didn't want to look at too long and [tick] anybody off," Johnson said. "I kind of put my head down and ran."

Lilly, who allowed three runs and seven hits in six innings, had given up only one run in his previous four starts against the Astros and had posted a 0.69 ERA in two starts against the Astros this year while he was with the Cubs. Houston somehow managed to win both of those games.

"I didn't get the job done when the game was on the line," Lilly said. "Pitching out of jams is part of what you do. You're not going to win too many games if you can't pitch out of jams."

The Astros' bullpen took it from there. Gustavo Chacin loaded the bases after one out in the seventh before getting James Loney to pop up. Mark Melancon came out of the bullpen and got pinch-hitter Jay Gibbons to ground out to strand all three runners.

"He continues to mature as well and throw the ball in those late times," Mills said.

Melancon came back out in the eighth and escaped the inning after giving up a leadoff walk when Casey Blake was called for batter interference. Astros catcher Humberto Quintero, throwing from his knees in an effort to get Ryan Theriot at second base, hit Blake's bat and then his knee, earning an inning-ending double play the hard way.

Brandon Lyon needed 17 pitches to send the Dodgers down in order in the ninth for his 14th save of the season.

But the hero on this night was Johnson, who quickly erased a growing set of goat horns with his mighty swing.

"He had a couple of tough at-bats and kept coming back," Mills said. "That's nice to see that he didn't let his whole game fall apart there with the error and two strikeouts. He came back and got the home run, and that was absolutely outstanding."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.