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Berkman lifts Astros to series sweep

Berkman lifts Astros to sweep

HOUSTON -- Everyone had counted the Astros out as playoff contenders this season -- everyone except Houston, that is.

But with a 7-4 win and series sweep of the Giants on Thursday, the Astros have put together an eight-game winning streak that keeps pushing them closer and closer into the Wild Card race.

Even with Carlos Lee -- the club's best hitter over the past month -- out for the season with a broken left pinky finger, Houston seems to keep putting all the right stuff together at all the right times.

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"Good pitching, good hitting, good defense, contributions from everybody," Lance Berkman said regarding the Astros' winning streak. "Even when you get that, a lot of times you don't win eight in a row. It is a fairly remarkable streak, and it's something that we had to have if we were going to do anything this year."

Berkman was the key ingredient in Thursday's victory, breaking a tie in the bottom of the eighth inning with a two-run homer. With Miguel Tejada on first after a single to right field, Berkman placed his shot into the Crawford Boxes in left field.

The first baseman also drove in a run on a double to left-center field in the third inning.

"I wasn't thinking home run, I was just trying to continue the inning," Berkman said. "Whenever you get an opportunity with the leadoff man on, that's probably the biggest at-bat in a late-game situation like that. You put him on, and you're in business. It was good, too, because I didn't want to play extra innings today."

The eight-game streak is the club's longest since its nine-game run in September 2006. The Astros are now three games above .500 for the first time since June 3, and they have won 12 of their past 14 and 16 of their past 20 games.

Yet the club is having some difficulty explaining the phenomenon, other than to say that every player has stepped up when called upon recently.

"There's a little magic in the clubhouse," manager Cecil Cooper said. "The guys believe in themselves and, when they believe in themselves, somebody will step up. When you've been playing like we have been, you kind of start to feel like you're a little on the invincible side."

Cooper said he attributes the recent success mostly to pitching. Although Brian Moehler was a bit shaky in his start Thursday, the rest of the starting rotation has been solid in the past two series.

"I think we're pounding the strike zone," Moehler said. "If you look at the amount of walks that we're not giving up, we're going in there and we're making quality pitches for the most part. We have to. Good things happen when you throw strikes. Sometimes you'll get beat, but for the most part good things will happen."

Moehler got behind early, giving up hits to the first three batters he faced and allowing two runs in the first frame. He was tagged with another in the third after a single by Eugenio Velez was followed by a Randy Winn RBI double.

"I just didn't locate [my fastball] today," Moehler said. "My two-seamer and four-seamer were cutting back in over the plate. It was just an adjustment that I wasn't able to correct today."

But Houston started chipping away at San Francisco's lead in the bottom of that inning, as Hunter Pence hit a ground-rule double off the wall in center field and scored on a wild pitch by Giants starter Kevin Correia.

The Astros tied the game at 3 in the third as Ty Wigginton singled to left and Tejada reached on a groundout. Berkman knocked in Wigginton, and Tejada scored on a Geoff Blum sacrifice fly.

After San Francisco's Fred Lewis homered in the sixth inning, the Astros tied it again with a David Newhan single. Newhan -- in his first start in nearly a month -- reached second on a passed ball, took third on a groundout and scored on a single by Darin Erstad.

Cooper said Newhan performed so well that he told him after the game he would be starting again Friday against Arizona.

"If you had a formula [for winning], you'd be able to put it together every year and have a great team," Erstad said in trying to explain the Astros' success. "But there are teams that have chemistry or whatever and don't do very well. It's hit or miss. We're just guys who want to play. We lay it on the line every day."

The club has swept back-to-back four-game series for the first time in franchise history.

"I think the biggest thing is that we're beating teams -- no offense to the Giants or Reds -- but we're beating teams that we should with good pitching, good defense and timely hitting," Erstad said. "Moehler didn't have his 'A' stuff today, but he found a way to keep us in the ballgame."

The Astros are still 7 1/2 games behind the Wild Card-leading Brewers

"It's a little annoying watching the Brewers win -- we wish somebody would help us out," Blum said. "But knowing that they're in our division and we're going to see them a couple more times, maybe we can take advantage of how well we're playing against them when they come through.

"We don't do too much listening to other people. We rely on each other too much to give in to the fact that were six or seven games behind. We're just going to keep going out and playing well."

Krysten Oliphant is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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