Fortunately for the Astros, they avoided what would have been a discouraging Thursday at Minute Maid Park by rallying for four runs in the sixth inning to beat the Nationals, 9-4, in what was technically the first game of a four-game series.
The win helped ease the pain from earlier in the day, when the Astros lost, 11-10, in 11 innings to the Nationals in the resumption of a game that was suspended by rain May 5 in Washington. The win kept the Astros at one game below .500 (42-43), which is where they were to begin the day.
"It was a nice win, particularly after a heartbreaking loss at the beginning," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "Every time we hit a spot that's tough for us and have a tough loss, we always seem to bounce back. I thought the bullpen did a terrific job of shutting things down and giving us a shot."
Houston needed only seven minutes to throw away the suspended game, losing on a two-out throwing error by shortstop Miguel Tejada. The Astros shrugged off the loss and pounded out 16 hits as every starting position player had at least one hit, led by Carlos Lee (3-for-5). They were 7-for-15 with runners in scoring position.
"As soon as I made the error, I really felt bad," Tejada said. "What can I say? I cannot put too much pressure on myself because my team needs me for the next game. Whatever happens, I knew we had another game and I had to keep my mind strong for next game."
With the win, the Astros moved into sole possession of fourth place in the National League Central for the first time since April 7. But not all the Astros players were happy with Thursday's outcome.
Houston starting pitcher Russ Ortiz was fuming after a game in which he pitched in only three innings, giving up six hits, four runs and two walks.
"There's no doubt that I wasn't on point," Ortiz said. "It was just one of those games. But I have no idea why I was pulled out. The last inning I got behind one hitter."
The Astros' bullpen picked up Ortiz, holding the Nationals to three hits in six scoreless innings. Alberto Arias (2-0) threw two innings to get the win and extend his scoreless innings streak to 17 1/3.
"I thought the bullpen did a terrific job of shutting things down and giving us a shot, particularly Arias and [Jeff] Fulchino," Cooper said. "I'm going to have to keep giving those kids flowers because they keep pitching well. I thought those innings we're really the key innings for us, and they kept putting up zeros and did a great job for us."
The Nationals scored twice in the first inning against Ortiz and led, 4-1, in the third after a two-out, bases-loaded single by catcher Josh Bard. Hunter Pence, who drove in Lance Berkman with an RBI single in the first, drove him in again with a grounder in the third to make it 4-2.
"Up and down the lineup, they all contributed," Cooper said.
Nationals starter John Lannan (6-6) pitched in and out of trouble the entire game before getting chased in the sixth following a two-run triple by Jeff Keppinger that tied the score.
Facing reliever Jason Bergmann later in the inning, Michael Bourn hit a fly ball to left field that caromed off the wall and rolled back toward the infield. Keppinger (2-for-4) scored easily to give the Astros the lead, and Bourn slid safely into third base with his league-leading eighth triple. Tejada put the Astros ahead, 6-4, two pitches later with a soft single into left field.
"He was throwing the ball fairly well," Washington manager Manny Acta said of Lannan. "But when you are playing in this place, a lot of guys just don't pitch inside enough. They are intimidated by that short porch. I think he pitched way too much on one side of the plate. It kind of caught up with him a little bit. The Astros knew where he was going. They hit him good. They have a good-hitting ballclub."
Berkman put the game out of reach with a three-run homer in the eighth off Mike MacDougal. Berkman is hitting .444 during his 11-game hitting streak and tied Ruben Sierra for sixth place all-time among Major League switch-hitters with his 306th career homer.
"We're trying to get to .500 before the All-Star break, so if we wanted to give ourselves a realistic chance to do that we needed to win tonight," Berkman said. "It didn't start out great, but we came back and won the game. We're not trying to put too much emphasis on it, but we need to win as many as you can."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less