05/20/07 12:14 AM ET
Five-run sixth lifts Astros to victory
Big inning gives lefty Rodriguez second straight win
By Ben Dubose / MLB.com
What a difference a week can make.
Rodriguez continued to build on his recent success Saturday, tossing six strong innings, yielding four hits and one run, in a 6-1 Astros victory before a sold-out crowd of 41,990 at Minute Maid Park.
"I felt great, and my location was good," Rodriguez said through an interpreter. "[Catcher Brad] Ausmus has a lot of experience, and he's a great catcher, so I feel comfortable following him. My breaking pitches were really good today, so I used them a lot, as well as the changeup."
The left-hander struck out seven in his six innings, and posted his second consecutive win after defeating Arizona last Sunday. His last win before that came on July 2, 2006, against these same Rangers.
"The key is he's not walking as many batters," Ausmus said of the pitcher's turnaround. "He forces hitters to earn their way on base. I hope [his confidence] snowballs. He's on track. He has to stay on track."
Rodriguez appeared particularly confident in the third inning, striking out the heart of the Texas order -- Mark Teixeira, Sammy Sosa and Nelson Cruz -- in succession, all swinging.
Although it took until this past Sunday to earn his first victory, Rodriguez had pitched well all season long but frequently earned no-decisions as a result of poor run support. He's pitched particularly well at Minute Maid Park, with an ERA slightly above 2.00. His start Saturday pushed his season ERA below 4.00, an outstanding figure for a pitcher most considered a fourth or fifth starter at best.
Astros manager Phil Garner said the lefty is showing signs of turning the corner.
"[Wandy] is encouraging," Garner said. "He's showing all the signs a pitcher makes when he's maturing. He's using his breaking pitches well and he has good command. And when he has a letdown, he buckles down and makes good pitches. I like that he seems to get tougher in tough situations."
One such scenario appeared to be in the fifth inning, when Rodriguez walked two and appeared to struggle with his command. But he struck out Kevin Mahar and pitcher John Koronka and induced a weak flyout to center from Ian Kinsler to end the inning, keeping the Astros in front.
"Wandy was fantastic again," Astros reliever Brad Lidge said. "He's been throwing outstanding all year long. He handed us a lead [in the bullpen] and fortunately we were able to secure his win."
Offensively, however, the Astros seemed to be in for a long night against Koronka. But in a 1-1 tie in the sixth inning, the bats finally came through for Houston, in a somewhat unusual manner.
Hunter Pence and Morgan Ensberg led off the inning with back-to-back singles to left field and center field, and Jason Lane followed with a bunt down the third-base line that left Koronka without a play, loading the bases with no outs.
Ausmus drove in Pence on a 6-4-3 double play, and Craig Biggio blooped a two-out single to right field to score Ensberg, putting the Astros in front, 3-1. Biggio posted his second consecutive two-hit game, putting him at 2,970 hits in his quest for 3,000.
Ensberg, meanwhile, returned to the Houston starting lineup for the first time in more than a week, going 1-for-3 with a walk.
The inning appeared to be over when Mark Loretta hit a hard grounder to the hole at short and Michael Young flipped to third, beating Mike Lamb to the bag with the throw. But third-base umpire Tim Timmons ruled Lamb safe, loading the bases again, and Lance Berkman followed by lining a two-run single to right.
Carlos Lee then ripped a pitch to right for another RBI single, scoring Houston's fifth run of the inning, tied for its biggest offensive inning of the season. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Astros scored those five runs on seven hits, without any going for extra bases.
"We did all the little things right," Lane said. "Brad made contact and got a run in, and then we had a bunch of two-out hits. Those are back breakers. Once we had that inning, it felt like we took the wind out of them, and then our bullpen came in and slammed the door."
From there, Rodriguez turned the ball over to Lidge, and the former closer was spectacular again, throwing two scoreless innings without allowing a hit and striking out two. Lidge has not allowed an earned run in 17 of his last 20 outings, and his ERA now sits at a season-best 3.32.
"Having the team play like this makes everyone elevate their play a little bit," Lidge said. "I'm feeling really good out there. It feels like it did when I was at my best."
Chad Qualls pitched a scoreless ninth to finish the victory.
Ben Dubose is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.