Pitching plus homers lift Astros
Lidge on track; Munson and Lee provide offense over Dodgers
HOUSTON -- Jeff Kent stepped into the batter's box with two outs in the ninth inning as hot as any hitter in baseball. The Dodgers second baseman had torched his former team all series, going 7-for-10 with two home runs and two doubles, and represented the tying run against closer Brad Lidge as the Astros clung to a tenuous 2-1 lead.
If this were 2006, the 31,498 in attendance at Minute Maid Park would've likely held their breath. But it's a new year, and with that the vintage version of Lidge from 2004 and 2005 has seemingly returned.
With the crowd on its feet and roaring its collective confidence, Lidge snapped four consecutive quality sliders to Kent and induced a weak flyout to left, winning the showdown of power against power and securing the 2-1 Astros victory. For Lidge, the flyout completed another perfect ninth inning, and gave him his fifth save in the last eight days.
For the Astros, it's a series win over the first-place Dodgers and a second consecutive series win overall.
"We played outstanding and had some timely hits," Lidge said. "We're winning games the old-fashioned way, with pitching and defense. Our offense carried us for a while this year, so it's good for [the pitchers] to have a game like this."
Lidge's ERA for the season is down to 1.94. In his last 20 appearances (21 innings) since May 19, he's allowed just one run to go with 30 strikeouts and a 0.43 ERA.
Some, however, questioned if he would remain as effective when he moved back to the closer spot and pitched in the ninth inning. But since returning from injury after the All-Star Break and regaining his job, Lidge is a perfect 5-for-5 on saves, and hasn't allowed a run in any of those outings.
"I'm happy to get out there and put any questions [about the ninth inning] to rest," Lidge said. "I feel great right now, as good as I've ever felt in my career.
"I feel like [the slider] is my best pitch, so that's what we were going with [to Kent]. He's been hitting the ball really well. But at that point, I felt like my control with my slider was very good."
Starter Matt Albers pitched five shutout innings and left with the Astros holding a 1-0 lead. But in the seventh, Kent momentarily tied it against Chad Qualls with one of the most majestic home runs in the history of Minute Maid Park, caroming off the stand for the stadium lights about 30 feet above the train tracks and roughly parallel with the top of the Citgo sign.
The Astros, however, had a quick answer to regain momentum. Carlos Lee led off the bottom of the seventh against D.J. Houlton with a mammoth shot of his own, sailing 407 feet to left-center and landing near the Conoco pump to put the Astros back in front for good.
"I think that's a good statement to make," manager Phil Garner said. "When you score a run, shut the opposition down. When they score a run, go out and put something back on the board. It's big."
"This year has been tough," Lee said. "[Other teams] haven't given me nothing to hit. They've pitched around me the whole time. Especially in that situation, 2-0, I wasn't expecting anything around the plate, to be honest. He just threw the ball up in the middle of the plate, and I got lucky to make contact."
As impressive as Lee was on offense, he was equally impressive on defense. In the second, he fired a laser to Craig Biggio to nail Kent at second base after Kent lined what appeared to be a double off the left-field wall. In the eighth, with the Astros holding just a one-run lead, he made another terrific play on a line shot off the wall from Nomar Garciaparra, quickly gathering it and firing it back to second to hold Garciaparra to a single.
"He's done a marvelous job out there [defensively]," Garner said of Lee. "All year long he's been getting a feel for it. He's played balls well and he's moved around real well in the corner. Tonight, he got Kent and held Garciaparra to a single. That was a nice play."
Albers pitched extremely well in his spot start for the injured Roy Oswalt. The starter-turned-reliever made a seamless transition back to the rotation, tossing those five shutout innings and allowing just three hits with five strikeouts.
His most impressive inning came in the second. James Loney led off the inning with a triple to deep center, but he was stranded there after Albers struck out Matt Kemp and Derek Lowe swinging and induced a weak groundout from Rafael Furcal to end the inning.
"I hadn't started in a little over a month, so I was nice and fresh," Albers said. "You just go ahead and relax, focus on pitches and try to make them."
"I think [Albers] did a real nice job with left-handers," Garner said. "That's where he needed to work. But he got ahead of them and used his pitches very well. He pitched out of a couple of jams. Nice job."
Dave Borkowski, Qualls and Dan Wheeler combined to throw three solid innings of relief between the sixth and the eighth, with the only blemish coming on the Kent homer.
Ben DuBose is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.