Pettitte allows only a solo homer in strong outing

HOUSTON (AP) -- Andy Pettitte felt better than he had in a long
time, going all the way back to his final game with the New York
Yankees almost 18 months ago.

He pitched like it, too.

Pettitte allowed only a solo homer to Reggie Sanders in a strong
six-inning season debut, and Mike Lamb's two-run triple in the
bottom of the eighth sent the Houston Astros to a 4-1 win over the
St. Louis Cardinals on Wednesday.

"It was great to go back out there and not pitch with a lot of
pain," Pettitte said. "I can't tell you how happy I am to go out
there and not hurt. It makes you appreciate your health."

Chad Qualls pitched two perfect innings and Brad Lidge got three
outs for a save to help Houston break a three-game losing streak
against the Cardinals, dating to Game 6 of the NL championship
series last October.

Coming off an elbow injury that ended his season last August,
Pettitte proved that those painful days of 2004 might finally be
behind him. The last time Pettitte looked this good, he was wearing
pinstripes and pitching in Game 6 of the 2003 World Series.

He showed little rust against the Cardinals despite the long
layoff, retiring the first nine he faced before giving up a single
to David Eckstein to lead off the fourth.

"He kept us off-balance," Sanders said. "We didn't know what
to expect because he's been out so long."

In the fifth, Sanders sent Pettitte's curveball off the wall in
left field but Pettitte recovered, giving up only one more hit
before Qualls replaced him to start the seventh.

"He kicked it up a little when he had to do it," Astros
manager Phil Garner said. "It was a marvelous job."

Pettitte even made it safely through his two at-bats -- both
strikeouts -- which were the start of all his troubles during his
Houston debut last season.

He tore a tendon in his elbow in that game, went on the disabled
list twice, missed eight starts with a sore arm and hardly
resembled the guy known as one of baseball's best postseason

Pettitte finally decided to have season-ending surgery in
August, forcing him to miss the playoffs for the first time since
he was a promising 22-year-old in the Yankees' minor league system.

Now 32, Pettitte is eager for a chance to make up for his
absence during the Astros' run through the postseason last year.

"I wish I had been there to take some of the heat off Roger
(Clemens) and Roy (Oswalt)," he said. "It's just a good
situation, just disappointing I wasn't there to help those guys

His return was certainly worth the wait for Astros fans, though.
The crowd of 28,496 heartily cheered Pettitte as he left the mound
at the end of the fifth.

The Astros struggled to pull away until Lamb's triple off Julian
Tavarez in the eighth. Rookie center fielder Willy Taveras, the
23-year-old replacement for Carlos Beltran, followed with an RBI
single to give Houston a 4-1 lead.

Tavarez took the loss, allowing three runs on four hits.

"He just hit it in the right spot," Tavarez said of Lamb's
shot to right-center. "It wasn't my best pitch. We weren't playing
him to hit it there."

Astros fans clearly relished the sight of a beaten Tavarez,
lustily booing him as he trudged back to the dugout. Tavarez became
a target of fans in Houston during Game 4 of the NLCS when he threw
a fastball over Jeff Bagwell's head. He was later fined $10,000.

"It's a great thing," Garner said. "They remember him in the
playoffs. It was fun then and it was a lot of fun now."

Game notes
Sanders homered for the second straight day. ... Astros 3B
Morgan Ensberg went 3-for-3. ... Astros RF Jason Lane made a nice
diving catch of Larry Walker's broken-bat hit to right. ... The
2004 All-Star starting pitchers both make their debuts Friday.
Houston right-hander Roger Clemens faces Cincinnati, while St.
Louis righty Mark Mulder, an offseason trade pickup from Oakland,
starts in St. Louis' home opener against Philadelphia. ... Actor
Lou Diamond Phillips threw out the first pitch.