Nats ride five-run first inning past slumping Astros

Nationals 7, Astros 6

HOUSTON (AP) -- The Washington Nationals figured the best way to get to Houston's Juan Gutierrez in his first major league start was to be aggressive early. It turned out they needed the entire six-run lead.

Ronnie Belliard capped a five-run first inning with a two-run homer, and Austin Kearns had three hits as the Nationals hung on to beat the Astros 7-6 on Thursday night.

Washington tagged Gutierrez for another run in the third, and took three of four in the series against the Astros after losing five of their previous six games.

"We jumped on him," Belliard said. "He was throwing strikes. Especially a rookie, he's going to try to work that zone."

Said Gutierrez: "In the first inning, I threw all my pitches down, and it looked like I just made it easy for them to hit."

Astros manager Phil Garner was lenient in appraising the 23-year-old right-hander, who was making just his third appearance.

"I don't think he just grooved them in there in the first inning," Garner said. "He just didn't have a chance to get his head above water."

Carlos Lee hit a pair of two-run homers, the second with two outs off closer Chad Cordero in the ninth to make it 7-6. But Cordero got Orlando Palmeiro to pop out for his 28th save in 36 chances.

"I was going to go right after him," said Cordero, who hadn't pitched since Saturday. "If he hit it out, he hit it out."

Lee also hit an RBI single in the seventh off Luis Ayala, as the Astros lost for the sixth time in nine games.

"We almost made a comeback, but it is really hard when you get down like that," Lee said.

Rookie John Lannan (2-2) worked in and out of trouble, giving up three runs, five hits and five walks while winning for the first time in four starts. He picked up his first victory on Aug. 1, his first start after he was thrown out of his debut for hitting the Phillies' Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in consecutive at-bats.

"I struggled with my spots and throwing fastballs for strikes," Lannan said. "I walked too many guys. I was just trying to keep the team in the game after those six runs."

Staked to the early lead, Nationals manager Manny Acta thought that the left-hander was afraid of the short dimensions down the left field line.

"This ballpark can do that to you, especially a young guy," Acta said. "You run the pitches away and away, afraid of those Crawford Boxes. You keep putting guys on, and disaster strikes."

Gutierrez (0-1), who had made two prior relief appearances with the Astros, yielded six runs and 11 hits in five innings. A Double-A All-Star in 2006, Gutierrez struck out four and needed just 16 pitches to get through the first seven batters -- even though five of them scored.

Ryan Zimmerman, Dmitri Young and Kearns hit consecutive RBI doubles in the first. Two batters later, Belliard belted his eighth homer on the first pitch for a 5-0 advantage.

"In this ballpark, five runs, unless you have a dominant type of guy on the mound, isn't a safe lead, especially when you have nine innings to play," Acta said.

The Astros had their chances early on, leaving two runners on in the second. In the fourth, Lannan walked the first two batters, but struck out Chris Burke and then raced to first base to catch the relay throw on an Eric Munson double-play ball.

"You've just got to go out there and throw strikes," Lannan said. "It makes you feel better, it gives you more leeway."

Lance Berkman drove in Houston's first run in the fifth inning with a groundout, and he scored a pitch later when Lee hit his first home run of the game to cut the deficit to 6-3.

Ryan Church added a sacrifice fly in the seventh.

Game notes
Top Astros prospect LHP Troy Patton is expected to make his major league debut Saturday against Pittsburgh. ... Houston RHP Brandon Backe (right elbow surgery) and RHP Chris Sampson (right elbow sprain) both had rehab outings with Triple-A Round Rock rained out in Omaha. ... Lee had gone 55 at-bats since his last home run on Aug. 6. ... Young had two doubles, and six of his last nine hits have gone for extra bases. ... Ayala allowed a run for just the second time in the last 14 outings.