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Astros answer manager's call against Braves
Houston Astros second baseman Kazuo Matsui, left throws to first after forcing out Atlanta Braves Casey Kotchman (22) at second base during the third inning Saturday at Turner Field in Atlanta. - photo by Gregory Smith

ATLANTA — Cecil Cooper believes his Houston lineup is too good to be tied for last in the majors in runs, so he called on his biggest “horses” to hit.

Two batters in the middle of the lineup responded to the challenge.

Lance Berkman hit a first-inning homer, Hunter Pence had three hits and the Astros answered Cooper’s call for more offense with a 5-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday.

Before the game, Cooper said, “Our big horses have got to hit. If they don’t hit, the wagon don’t move! We’ve got Clydesdales. Our Clydesdales have got to pull the wagon.”

Entering the day, the Astros were tied with San Francisco for last in the majors with 80 runs scored.

“As a group we’re stinking it up a little bit,” Cooper said.

The Astros’ 12 hits were their second-highest total of the season.

“We finally got some big hits for a change,” Cooper said after the game.

The first hit was Berkman’s sixth homer, a liner off Jair Jurrjens that barely cleared the left-field wall.

Houston still led 1-0 in the second inning when a rain delay of 1 hour, 37 minutes took Jurrjens and Houston starter Roy Oswalt out of the game.

Tim Byrdak (1-0), the third of six Houston pitchers, gave up two hits in 2 1-3 scoreless innings.

Chipper Jones’ error helped the Astros score three runs off Buddy Carlyle (0-1) in the fourth.

“Avoiding over-frustration is important right now,” Jones said after the Braves’ fourth loss in five games. “Because I’m teetering on breaking something myself.”

The Braves opened the series with a 7-2 win over the Astros on Friday night, when they scored more than four runs for just the third time in their last 16 games. But their struggles resumed on Saturday.

“Our offense, there’s no continuity,” Jones said. “There’s no flow. ... There’s just something that happens to thwart a possible big inning.”

Felipe Paulino, who took over for Oswalt, gave up a tying run in the second when Jeff Francoeur doubled and scored on a wild pitch.

Houston’s fourth pitcher, right-hander Chris Sampson, hobbled off the field at the end of the seventh after Jones’ grounder hit his right ankle. Sampson recovered to throw out Jones at first before falling back to the ground. He said he suffered a deep bruise.

Jones’ fielding error helped the Astros in their three-run fourth. Carlos Lee, who had two hits, singled before Jones mishandled Miguel Tejada’s grounder at third for an error.

“I booted a tailor-made double play,” Jones said. “They scored three runs after it. ... We had the opportunity to keep them at bay. That play took us out of the ball game.”

After the error, Pence’s infield hit loaded the bases.

“That was the key at-bat in the whole game, in my opinion,” Cooper said of Pence’s single past Casey Kotchman at first base. “He got behind in the count and battled.”

Ivan Rodriguez drove in Lee with a single to right, pinch-hitter Darin Erstad’s fly ball to left allowed Tejada to score, and Kaz Matsui’s single up the middle drove in Pence for a 4-1 lead.

Two of the three runs in the inning were unearned. Jones was charged with a second fielding error in the seventh, when he couldn’t snag Berkman’s grounder.

It was Jones first game with two errors since March 31, 2003, when he committed two errors in left field against Montreal. His last game with two errors at third base was June 26, 2001, at Philadelphia.

Rodriguez led off the ninth with a double off James Parr and scored on Michael Bourn’s triple to center.

Notes: Rookie CF Jordan Schafer had two hits with three strikeouts in his first game as the Braves’ leadoff hitter. ... Houston had a season-high 13 hits in a 7-0 win over Cincinnati on April 18. ... The Braves are the only NL team that Oswalt hasn’t defeated. He’s 0-2 in six career starts against Atlanta. ... C Brian McCann, on the disabled list because of blurry vision, expects to report for his minor league rehab assignment with Triple-A Gwinnett on Tuesday or Wednesday as he tries to adjust to new glasses. McCann’s fill-in, David Ross, was 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

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