Manager Cecil Cooper was hoping for three or four innings from Sampson, and he planned to utilize the bullpen to absorb the bulk of the innings. But the normally stingy Sampson took efficiency to a new level, averaging 11 pitches per inning for a grand total of 55.
That efficiency enabled Sampson to stay in for five innings, which eased the load on the bullpen -- a contribution that helped not only Saturday, but it could give the entire rotation a boost, as it attempts to finish out the first half with little, if any, help from the ailing Roy Oswalt.
"Sampson was outstanding, that's what I'll say," said a beaming Cooper. "My usual words for him are 'very efficient,' and he was. He threw strikes, mixed his pitches well. He really gutted through five innings. He did a terrific job."
Not only did Sampson warm up as if he was entering the game in relief, but he faced batters with the same mentality. As a starter, he tended to hold some of his pitches in an effort to keep the hitters guessing later in the games. But against the Braves, he hid nothing.
"Coop and [pitching coach] Dewey [Robinson] told me before I started, we were going to take it inning by inning, and if I only got three innings, then I got three innings," Sampson said. "But they said they were going to ask me every inning how I felt, and that was basically my game plan -- take it inning by inning, use all my pitches, and I wasn't trying to save anything as I did when I was a starter."
Sampson's performance didn't necessarily earn him another start. He appears to be headed back to the 'pen, while the rest of the rotation -- Wandy Rodriguez, Runelvys Hernandez, Brandon Backe and Brian Moehler -- should be able to finish out the remainder of the road trip heading into the All-Star break, with or without Oswalt, thanks to an off-day on Thursday that will allow everyone to stay on schedule.
Cooper prefers to have Sampson available out of the bullpen, where he can contribute several times a week, rather than once every five days as he does as a starter.
It's hard to argue with the logic. Sampson has been one of the Astros' best relievers since joining the 'pen at the end of May, logging a 2.16 ERA over 13 relief appearances, spanning 16 2/3 innings.
"He's been awfully, awfully good for us in the bullpen," Cooper said. "That's where I'd like to see him stay."
Sampson has embraced the bullpen role, even as he acknowledges that his heart is still in the rotation.
"If the team needed me in the 'pen, I was going to go to the 'pen and just do the best I could," Sampson said. "The only thing I wanted to show them is that anytime they give me the ball, no matter what role, I can handle the job and I'll do the best I can."
But just in case he wanted to remind the Astros that he's a capable starter, his actions on Saturday spoke volumes. He yielded a one-out single to Yunel Escobar in the first inning, but he retired the next 11 batters in order. Brian McCann led off the fifth with a solo home run, but Sampson recorded quick outs on the next three hitters to cap his night.
Reliever Tim Byrdak followed with two scoreless frames, and Doug Brocail and Jose Valverde each contributed one.
"For a guy to come in ... and to throw five like that, [Sampson] really gave us a lot," Byrdak said. "You want to make sure that you keep it exactly where it was."
The Astros supported Sampson with four runs in the first two innings. Carlos Lee drove in Mark Loretta with an RBI single in the first, and Lee then scored on Miguel Tejada's base hit. In the second, Loretta hit a two-run double to give the Astros a 4-0 advantage.
Loretta added another two-run double in the ninth, bringing his RBI total to four.
"The first two doubles I hit carried pretty well, just out of the reach of the outfielders," Loretta said. "So it was a good night to hit fly balls. The last one, I just kind of fouled off an inside fastball. There was a little luck involved tonight. I was fortunate to get those."
Loretta has 10 hits in 25 at-bats over a seven-game hitting streak.
"Those guys are veterans," Cooper said. "They've been through this many, many times. Let's face it, [Loretta's] a professional hitter. He knows how to get it done. He did a great job tonight."