HOUSTON -- As the Padres put one runner after another on base in the ninth inning Wednesday night, catcher Chris Snyder glanced to the end of the home dugout at Minute Maid Park hoping not to see manager Brad Mills walking up the steps.
Astros rookie starter Lucas Harrell was pitching the game of his life, and -- despite a few heart-stopping moments in a tension-filled ninth inning -- the veteran catcher desperately wanted Harrell to get to taste the satisfaction of finishing the job.
"That game belonged to him," Snyder said.
Harrell secured his first career complete game and shutout in dramatic fashion, striking out Nick Hundley for the final out to strand the bases loaded in a scintillating 1-0 win over the Padres that was played in less than two hours.
Harrell let his emotions show after a tenuous ninth inning, pumping his fist following the game-ending strikeout and embracing Snyder with a bear hug.
"It was one of those things where I felt like as the game went on I got a little bit stronger," Harrell said. "I felt like my velocity was coming a little bit more, and also I felt like I was hitting my spots a little bit better. So that last inning, once I knew I got two outs, I definitely was trying to pump up a little for that last out."
Harrell, signed off waivers by the Astros last year from the White Sox, is the first rookie pitcher to throw a shutout for Houston since Taylor Buchholz in 2006. He's 5-1 with a 1.99 ERA in seven starts at home this year and leads the team with seven wins.
He had his sinker working to perfection, getting the Padres to swing early in counts. He threw only 10 pitches in the first inning, nine in the sixth and five in the eighth.
"You go out there and try to make pitches," Harrell said. "My goal every time out is just to keep them in the game and give them a chance to win, and more likely than not we'll score enough runs to win. I feel like if I can hold them to two, three runs and hopefully go seven, eight innings, that will give us a chance to win."
The Astros have won four of their last five games thanks to strong starting pitching -- the starters have a 2.06 ERA in the last 10 games -- and an uncharacteristic home run burst. Houston has hit 11 long balls in that five-game span, with Matt Downs playing the role of hero in the third inning Wednesday by hitting a leadoff homer off Padres starter Clayton Richard (5-8).
"You never know if a swing like that is going to last for nine innings," Downs said. "You never know you're going to win the game, 1-0, so you look up there and it's 1-0 in the ninth inning and you see how important it is to score every run you can. I was just glad Lucas threw the ball as well as he did and shut them out."
Downs' homer -- his fifth of the season -- and a leadoff single by J.D. Martinez in the second inning were the only base runners the Astros managed against Padres pitching, which retired 24 of 26 Houston batters, including the final 18 following Downs' homer.
"They beat us," Padres manager Bud Black said. "We didn't lose that game. The Astros beat us. He pitched well and they made a defensive play at the end."
The defensive play was as key as any pitch Harrell threw in the ninth and as clutch as Downs' mighty swing in the third.
With runners and first and second and one out, Logan Forsythe singled to left field, and the Padres sent pinch-runner Alexi Amarista to the plate. Astros left fielder J.D. Martinez threw a strike to Snyder, who turned to tag a sliding Amarista for the second out of the inning.
"I knew the situation," Martinez said. "I just knew that I was going to have to make a really good throw. I knew the guy was fast. I was just lucky that my outfield coach put me in good position, brought me in a little bit and gave me a much better chance to get to the ball quicker and make a much better throw on it."
Snyder summed up the play succinctly.
"We'd still be out there if that doesn't happen," he said.
Harrell (7-6) began the ninth having thrown only 85 pitches, putting him in position to throw the Astros' second complete game in the last five (Dallas Keuchel threw Houston's first complete game in more than a year in his second Major League start Saturday).
Mills wasn't about to pull him after the single by Forsythe, considering he needed just one more out to finish the deal. Harrell walked Mark Kotsay with two outs to the load the bases, but Mills still thought his pitcher was in the zone enough to keep him in the game.
"With a guy pitching the way he pitched all night, to go get him right there, that's no fun at all," Mills said. "I want him to have a chance to really get over the hump. We've seen a guy that's thrown the ball so well this first half, especially the last four or five outings. I want him to receive that and he was able to get it, and it was pretty cool."