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ATL@HOU: Pence belts a two-run homer in the third

HOUSTON -- Wandy Rodriguez came back from a long layoff and pitched with the same effectiveness as he did before he went on the disabled list. Hunter Pence returned from a much shorter hiatus -- missing Sunday's game with a tight back -- and showed no signs of slowing down.

With arguably their most effective starting pitcher and undoubtedly their best hitter back in the fold, the Astros found the perfect recipe to snap a four-game losing streak and avoid getting swept with an 8-3 win over the Braves on Monday night at Minute Maid Park.

Rodriguez threw six scoreless innings in his first start since May 22, and Pence went 3-for-4 with four RBIs, including a two-run home run, to extend his career-best hitting streak to 23 games -- the second-longest streak in the Majors this year.

"It was a good game," Pence said. "It's great to see Wandy come out and pitch the way he did, and the offense swing the bats the way they did. [First baseman Brett Wallace] looked like he got back in his usual swing and drove the ball the other way, which is good. There were just good at-bats all the way around."

Pence's streak, which this year trails only Andre Ethier's 30-game streak, is tied for the fourth-longest in team history and is the longest by an Astros player since Willy Taveras set a club record by collecting a hit in 30 consecutive games in 2006.

Pence is second in the National League with 88 hits and leads the Astros with a .325 batting average, nine home runs and 50 RBIs, which also ranks among the league leaders.

"He's having an All-Star year," Wallace said. "He's doing some special things out there and he's one of our leaders, especially on the field every day. Seeing him play through what it might be -- sore back, tight back, whatever it is -- his energy in the lineup is big for us. He's the guy that gets us going a lot of the time and a guy you know, no matter how he's doing or what he's feeling, he's going to give us 100 percent."

Pence wasn't the only offensive hero for the Astros, who banged out 14 hits and sent Braves starter Derek Lowe (3-5) to the showers after only 5 1/3 innings.

Jeff Keppinger (2-for-5), Wallace (2-for-2 with two walks) and Chris Johnson (2-for-4) combined to go 6-for-11 in the fifth through seventh spots in the batting order. Clint Barmes and J.R. Towles had sacrifice flies, and Matt Downs had a pitch-hit RBI double. Astros center fielder Michael Bourn swiped his 200th career stolen base.

Pence hit a two-run homer in the third inning and added a two-run single in the Astros' five-run outburst in the fifth, which gave them a 7-0 lead. They led, 8-0, before Brandon Lyon gave up a three-run homer to Jordan Schafer in the ninth. Lyon has given up a homer in all three of his outings since coming back from the disabled list, but it didn't hurt the Astros on this night.

"It's important for us to go out there and try to get an early lead, especially with Wandy coming back," Wallace said. "You want to try to give him a little bit of a margin for error. We went once through lineup and weren't able to do it, and then Hunter comes up with that big hit, and everybody relaxes a little bit, and when that happens, we were able to keep going from there."

Rodriguez (4-3), who had been on the DL with left elbow discomfort, held the Braves to two hits and worked around four walks. He allowed a leadoff double and a pair of walks in the first inning, but struck out Joe Mather to strand the bases loaded. The Braves were 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position against Rodriguez.

Rodriguez improved to 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in his past six starts.

"I thought his command, it took him awhile," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "He wasn't able to rein it back in, but he did when he got runners on base."

Pence said the players held an impromptu team meeting Sunday at an off-the-field function, with both veterans and younger players alike speaking their minds. The Astros had lost eight of nine games prior to Monday's win.

"That's the good thing about it, is getting everyone talking baseball, getting everyone focused and trying to learn and teach," Pence said. "Some of the young guys had some good questions, and some of the older guys had good experience. The main thing is to all come together because we have to do it together.

"When it's this way, the only thing you can really influence beyond talking is the person you look at in the mirror. We've all got to get better. We've all got to look at ourselves. We can't point the finger and say, 'Oh it's this,' or 'Oh, it's that.' We have to look in the mirror and get it fixed. There's no time for excuses. This is the Major Leagues and we have to play better baseball."

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