Astros ride strong Backe to victory
Hitters play small ball while starter delivers best outing of '08
ARLINGTON -- Having dropped two in a row while trying to outslug Texas, the Astros went back to a little National League-style small ball to salvage the series finale on Sunday.
With a strong performance from starter Brandon Backe, productive at-bats from Mark Loretta, J.R. Towles and Miguel Tejada and hustle on the basepaths by Ty Wigginton and Kazuo Matsui, the Astros hung on for a 5-4 victory over the Rangers at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
It was only the sixth time this season that the Astros, 25-20, have won a game without hitting at least one home run.
"[This win was] real important because we're the kind of team that scores a lot of runs, but sometimes you're going to face a pitcher where it's hard to score runs, so you've got to be able to [play] small ball," Tejada said.
The offense built a 5-0 lead by the end of the fifth inning on seven singles, two doubles and three walks.
"We had some fundamental baseball today, some situational hitting," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "I've said all along you've got to win games that way sometimes, manufacturing some [runs], going first to third. That's what we were able to do today, and we needed that today. This was one of the bigger [wins] for us today."
Loretta's bases-loaded walk in the fourth gave Houston a 1-0 lead. Wigginton's hustle on a potential double-play grounder enabled him to beat the throw, allowing Lance Berkman to score Houston's second run. Towles followed with a double to right on a 2-1 pitch from Rangers starter Kason Gabbard (1-1) to make it 3-0, Astros.
"You try and take what they give you," Loretta said. "You want to stay out of a double play. [Gabbard] gave me a 3-1 changeup, then threw one down. We knew coming in that he was susceptible to being wild, but he hadn't really shown it up until that point."
Hustle led to two more Houston runs in the fifth. Matsui beat out an infield hit, and Tejada, who finished 3-for-5 on the afternoon, doubled him home. After a Berkman single, Tejada raced home on a sacrifice fly by Carlos Lee.
Backe (3-5) limited the Rangers to just two singles until the seventh, when Milton Bradley's two-run homer spoiled his shutout bid. David Murphy's home run to right made it back-to-back for the Rangers and ended Backe's day.
"The home run was because I fell behind," Backe said. "You put it down there, he was looking to do one thing and he got it. I'm not going to throw him a changeup or walk him. He had to hit a fastball, and that's what he did."
Backe pitched 6 1/3 innings and was charged with three runs on five hits. The right-hander struck out five and did not walk anyone.
"I think [it was Backe's best outing of the season] by far," Cooper said. "I thought he threw the ball well. I thought he hit his spots really good today, threw his changeup a lot today. I thought his command was really, really good today, and I thought he attacked the hitters. The way we've been giving up runs early, this was a huge outing by Brandon."
The Rangers closed the gap late, but Doug Brocail and Jose Valverde made certain the tying run didn't score. Valverde came on in the eighth inning and got four outs for his 12th save.
"I threw a lot of split-fingers today because I don't know what happened [with] these guys with fastballs away. They swung like they knew it was coming," Valverde said. "You know that's why I had to throw split-fingers and my cutter."
Cooper was ejected from the game in the sixth inning by second-base umpire Angel Campos after arguing a play at second base.
The Astros, 12-4 in May, finished their road trip 7-3.
"It's a miracle," joked Berkman, who had two hits on Sunday to extend his hitting streak to 17 games.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.