Biggio, Backe lead streaking Astros past Pirates

HOUSTON (AP) -- Brandon Backe has lost some velocity on his
fastball since coming back from a sprained right elbow.

But the Houston Astros' starter still has plenty of other
reliable pitches and he used them all in a 3-1 win over the
Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night.

Making his fourth start since coming off the disabled list,
Backe (3-1) allowed three hits, walked four and struck out two to
improve to 12-3 at Minute Maid Park.

"I know what I've got. I can't get any more than what I've been
showing," Backe said. "There's not going to be any 93 mph
fastball I'm going to be able to throw by people. I've just got to
use my ability to locate it as well as possible. There's no
overpowering anybody anymore."

Craig Biggio homered and Adam Everett added an RBI double for
the defending NL champions, who have won five of six. They won for
only the third time in their last 10 home games.

Dan Wheeler pitched a scoreless eighth, his 10th consecutive
appearance without allowing a run, and Brad Lidge struck out all
three batters in the ninth to earn his 25th save in 29 chances.

Lidge has struggled at times this season, but looked like his
old self on Tuesday, needing just 10 pitches to finish off the

"That's the biggest problem for me is that I haven't been able
to do it consistently," Lidge said. "I know it will come at some
point and I hope this is the start of it."

Jose Castillo hit a sacrifice fly for the Pirates. Pittsburgh
has lost five of its last seven and scored two runs or fewer in
four of those losses.

Pirates starter Paul Maholm (4-10) allowed five hits, walked
four and struck out six in six innings, losing for the third time
in seven starts.

Maholm's strikeout total was his highest since he fanned seven
in San Francisco on June 11. But he had control problems in the
first inning, walking three Astros to load the bases.

With one out, Preston Wilson grounded to shortstop Jack Wilson,
who flipped to Castillo to start a double-play try. But Wilson was
safe when first baseman Xavier Nady couldn't catch Castillo's
off-balance relay throw, and Biggio scored for a 1-0 lead.

Biggio got Houston's first hit in the third, driving a 3-1 pitch
from Maholm into the first row of seats in left field. It was
Biggio's 15th homer this season and the 275th of his career.

Pittsburgh manager Jim Tracy liked what he saw from Maholm after
the rocky start.

"Our starting pitcher did something I don't think we would've
seen earlier in the year," Tracy said. "This time, he had another
rough start, but he maintained his composure. It was impressive to
see him rectify himself the way he did."

Backe didn't allow a hit in the first three innings, but walked
three. Jason Bay and Jeromy Burnitz led off the fourth with singles
and Bay scored on Castillo's fly to right, cutting Houston's lead
to 2-1.

Maholm retired nine of the next 11 Astros he faced after
Biggio's homer.

"The first inning was rough. I just wasn't throwing very
well," Maholm said. "But I made the adjustments because I knew if
I didn't, it would be an early night. I had to keep battling."

Houston rallied for another run in the sixth.

With one out, Morgan Ensberg walked for the second time and
Wilson followed with a single to left. Ensberg went to third on
Chris Burke's flyout and scored on Everett's double into the
left-field corner. Everett has six RBI in his last seven starts.

"Big run, gave us a little breathing room," Astros manager
Phil Garner said. "That really made a big difference in the

Backe retired 10 of his last 11 batters. Garner said he looked
even sharper than he did in his last start, when he allowed one run
and seven hits in a 7-1 win at San Diego.

"He used all his pitches, located very well, stayed down,"
Garner said. "He did a very good job."

Luke Scott, batting .403 since he was called up from Triple-A
Round Rock on July 13, pinch-hit for Backe in the seventh and
doubled off Pittsburgh reliever John Grabow.

The Astros won their third straight series opener. They feel as
though they have to win virtually every series the rest of the way
to have a chance to win the tight race for the NL wild card.

"It's huge," Backe said. "We got this one off our back. We
win another one, either tomorrow or the next day, we've won another
series. That's what we have to do from here on out."

Game notes
Biggio's home run total ranks fourth all-time among second
basemen. He needs seven homers to tie Ryne Sandberg for third. ...
Houston's Willy Taveras had a bunt single in the fifth to extend
his hitting streak to 11 games. ... The Astros will call up RHP
Jason Hirsh from Triple-A Round Rock to start Saturday against San
Diego. The team said it would make a corresponding roster move
later this week. ... Pittsburgh dropped to 11-41 when scoring four
runs or fewer.