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Astros survive Reds 9th inning comeback bid

CINCINNATI - Lance Berkman came out of the All-Star break feeling refreshed and ready to hit.

''It's been an inconsistent year,'' said Berkman, who's hitting .282 with 19 homers. ''Maybe one of these games will help kick it in.''

He's hoping his performance Saturday is a sign of things to come.

Berkman, Richard Hidalgo and Morgan Ensberg hit consecutive home runs in the first inning, and the Houston Astros held on to beat the Cincinnati Reds for the ninth straight time, 9-8 on Saturday.

Berkman had two homers and five RBIs for the Astros, who have won four in a row and nine of their last 10. Berkman took early batting practice Thursday in an attempt to start the season's second half well.

''I came out early,'' Berkman said. ''I was just trying to get loose more than anything - get rid of a little rust.''

The Reds, trailing 9-3 entering the ninth, made it close by scoring five runs with one out. Sean Casey hit an RBI double and Ruben Mateo, 2-for-4 with three RBIs, had a run-scoring single off Kirk Saarloos. Octavio Dotel came in and gave up a pinch-hit homer to Jason LaRue, making it 9-8.

After walking Kelly Stinnett, Dotel got two outs for his fourth save.

Ron Villone (2-0) allowed six hits and one run in six innings to improve to 5-0 in 14 career appearances against Cincinnati.

''You can't script it any better than getting five runs in the first,'' Villone said. ''That allows you to be aggressive and let your defense play. If you look at their lineup, you're always impressed with who they can bring out, but they have to look at our lineup and look twice.''

Right-hander Ryan Wagner, the Reds' No. 1 pick and 14th overall selection in last month's draft, retired all five batters he faced in his major league debut.

Wagner, the first player from this year's draft to reach the majors, got pinch-hitter Brian Hunter swinging for his first major league strikeout. Thirteen of his 16 pitches were strikes. Many in the sellout crowd of 41,772 booed when manager Bob Boone replaced Wagner with left-hander Felix Heredia with two outs in the seventh.

''I'm ecstatic,'' Wagner said. ''I'm just glad (general manager) Jim Bowden gave me the opportunity to go out and show what I can do.''

The NL Central-leading Astros (53-44) needed just six pitches to take a 5-0 first-inning lead.

Craig Biggio hit a leadoff single, Jeff Bagwell was hit by a pitch with one out and Berkman homered off Jimmy Haynes (2-10) for a 3-0 lead.

Hidalgo, who hit two homers in Houston's win Friday night, followed with his third in less than 24 hours. Just a few pitches later, Ensberg made it three homers in a row.

Houston has scored at least five runs in one inning in four of their last five games against Cincinnati. The Astros have also scored 20 first-inning runs in their last five against the Reds.

The Reds allowed three homers in one inning for the third time this season, and three in a row for the second time.

''In our last 10 games, we've had about four of those,'' Boone said of the Astros' big inning. ''That's not good. Our starting staff is putting us in big holes.''

The last time three consecutive Astros connected for homers was on June 14, 2000, at Colorado.

Houston increased its lead to 6-0 in the second when Biggio was credited with a hit on a soft liner that glanced off shortstop Barry Larkin's glove and scored from first on Geoff Blum's double.

When Bagwell followed with a walk, Haynes was taken out. He allowed six hits and six runs in 1 1-3 innings, the shortest outing of his 49 starts in two seasons with the Reds.

''The only pitch I had control over was the split-finger, and that wasn't that good,'' Haynes said. ''Everything just felt bad - mechanics, body, arm. I was just tumbling my breaking balls.''

Berkman led off the fifth with his second homer for his first multihomer game of the season and 12th of his career.

The Astros got five walks from two Cincinnati relievers to add two runs in the sixth.

Mateo and Stinnett hit RBI singles in the eighth for the Reds.

Notes: The Astros' nine consecutive wins over Cincinnati have come after they lost the first game of the season between the teams. … LaRue's homer was his first as a pinch-hitter, and the seventh for the Reds this season. … Biggio's first-inning single gave him 2,400 hits, making him the 96th player in major league history with that many hits. … As expected, Houston 2B Jeff Kent got the day off after starting the first two games following his activation from the DL. … The sellout crowd was the ninth of the regular season for the Reds in their first year at Great American Ball Park … The loss was Cincinnati's season-high sixth in a row at home. The Reds' last home win was June 19.