Berkman activated, commits two-run error

ATLANTA (AP) -- John Smoltz's back was aching, but it sure didn't show on the mound.

While Atlanta roughed up Roy Oswalt, Smoltz allowed only two hits in five innings for his third straight win, leading the Braves
past the slumping Houston Astros 9-4 on Friday night.

Johnny Estrada hit a three-run homer and six of his teammates also had RBI. The surging Braves -- they've won 11 of 14 -- outscored Houston 18-7 in the first two games of the four-game series.

Smoltz (3-3) strained a muscle in the middle of his back while coughing a few days ago. He thought the pain had gone away, but it returned while he warmed up before the game.

The right-hander still managed to retire the first 10 hitters and give up only run before coming out after the fifth -- long enough to qualify for the win.

"I hate doing bare-minimum stuff," Smoltz said. "But today I had no option."

While the injury wasn't thought to be serious, he's willing to sit out his next start at Colorado if the back is still bothering him.

"I'm glad I got through it," Smoltz said. "But obviously I don't want this to linger."

The Astros knew they had squandered a chance to produce some runs against the hard-throwing right-hander.

"Smoltz didn't look unhittable," manager Phil Garner said.

Oswalt (4-3), a 20-game winner last season who beat Atlanta in the deciding fifth game of the NL Division Series, gave up 10 hits and nine runs -- including a career-high seven earned runs -- in a grim five-inning stint.

"I thought it was the best fastball he's had all year," Garner said. "That's why I stayed with him as long as I did."

Oswalt didn't get much help from his defense, either. The Astros misplayed two fly balls in Atlanta's three-run second, and Lance Berkman, playing out of position in his return from the disabled list, made a throwing error at first base that led to a pair of unearned runs in the fifth.

"I feel better tonight than I have in a long time. That's the funny thing," said Oswalt, who's been bothered by a sprained foot. "A few balls here and there could have been caught."

Berkman went 0-for-4 in his first game since offseason surgery, needed after he tore up his right knee in a flag football game. He's a welcome addition for the Astros, who have lost four in a row and 10 of their last 13.

But Houston is still hurting. Berkman played first with Jeff Bagwell missing his third straight game because of a sore shoulder. Bagwell is unlikely to start the rest of the series.

The Braves got off to a quick start against Oswalt -- Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles led off the first with singles -- but the right-hander had a chance to escape when he fanned Adam LaRoche for the second out.

Oswalt couldn't get by Estrada, however. The Braves' catcher got hold of a curve at his ankles, golfing the pitch into the right field seats for a 3-0 lead and his first homer since Sept. 10 of last season.

"I'm disappointed in the way I've started the season offensively," said Estrada, hitting just .237. "But I'm not a home run hitter. If I was trying to hit homers, I'd probably be
hitting .140."

The Braves scored three more in the second while the Astros staggered around in the outfield. Again, Atlanta struck for all its runs with two outs.

Furcal hit a drive to the edge of the warning track in left, potentially the third out until Mike Lamb circled the wrong way, stuck out his glove out too far in a futile attempt to catch the
ball and almost got hit in the arm. Furcal sped around to third, credited with an RBI triple.

Giles followed with a liner to center. Willy Taveras probably could have caught the ball without moving, but he broke to his right and then scrambled back too late to reach a ball that fell in for a run-scoring double. Chipper Jones finished off the inning with an RBI double of his own.

The Braves had another three-run outburst in the fifth. After Giles led off with a double, Jones hit a grounder to Berkman, but the neophyte first baseman made an errant throw to Oswalt covering the bag.

Berkman, normally an outfielder, started at first for the eighth time in his seven-year career to take some of the strain off his knee. But his error cleared the way to another big inning. LaRoche singled in a run, Brian Jordan had a sacrifice fly and Andruw Jones
chipped in with an RBI single.

"I'm not 100 percent, but I'm good enough to where I feel like I can be competitive," Berkman said. "I just need to be out there."

Raul Mondesi and Smoltz were the only Atlanta starters who didn't have an RBI.

Houston's Jason Lane hit his team-high fifth homer in the ninth, a two-run shot.

Game notes
Lamb drove in the other two Houston runs. ... Berkman has played eight games at first base in his career. ... Giles is 5-for-7 in two games against Astros. He came into the series mired in an 0-for-16 slump. ... Estrada's three RBI equaled his career high. ... Oswalt has yet to beat the Braves in five regular-season starts, going 0-2 with a 6.41 ERA.