Confidence Clash

Published 3:13 am Tuesday, April 27, 2010

HOUSTON — Improved hitting has helped the Houston Astros climb back from a terrible first week, and a series with the Cincinnati Reds may only help their confidence at the plate.

Following their most productive game of the season, the Astros look to win their fourth straight as they host the struggling Reds on Tuesday night.

Houston has won eight of 10 after losing its first eight, going from the majors’ last winless team to one of its hottest.

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The Astros’ reliable pitching is finally getting some support, with Houston averaging 4.6 runs in its last 10 after posting 1.7 in its previous eight. Lance Berkman’s return after missing the first two weeks with a knee injury has given the lineup a boost.

Berkman hit his first home run in six games since his return as Houston beat Pittsburgh 10-3 on Sunday. It was the first baseman’s 314th homer, tying him with Reggie Smith for fifth all-time among switch hitters.

The Astros (8-10) had their highest-scoring game of 2010 after posting a season-best 13 hits against the Pirates in a 5-2 victory the previous day.

“I think we have as good a team as anybody in the National League right now,” Berkman said. “But you have to be sharp when you play those teams, or you’re going to get beat. We weren’t sharp and we got beat. Now, we’re back together, everybody’s here, everybody’s healthy and we’re playing well. We just need to maintain it.”

Houston now faces a three-game series against a Cincinnati team that has a 6.02 ERA and has allowed at least 10 runs twice in its last five games.

Berkman is batting .327 with 48 homers and 133 RBIs in 143 games against the Reds (8-11). The five-time All-Star has seven home runs and three doubles in 51 at-bats against Aaron Harang (0-3, 8.31 ERA), who is set to start for Cincinnati.

The veteran right-hander surrendered seven runs and 10 hits in 5 2-3 innings of a 14-6 loss to Los Angeles on Wednesday night. He has a 13.03 ERA in his last two outings.

“Obviously, it’s bad luck,” Harang said. “I’m in a bad spell right now.”

The Reds’ ace is 12-34 with a 4.74 ERA since the start of 2008. He is 9-9 with a 4.79 ERA in 22 starts against the Astros.

Houston will counter with Bud Norris (1-1, 4.26), who didn’t receive a decision after giving up four runs in five innings of a 5-4 win over Florida on Wednesday night. The right-hander hasn’t lasted past the fifth inning in any of his three outings.

This is his first appearance against the Reds.

Cincinnati was held to four hits in a 5-0 loss to San Diego on Saturday but avoided a three-game sweep with a 5-4 victory the next day.

Manager Dusty Baker was upset with his team’s effort Saturday after it made three baserunning errors en route to being shut out for the first time, ripping into his players and skipping his usual postgame session with the media. The Reds were able to bounce back, getting a tiebreaking RBI single in the eighth inning from Ramon Hernandez.

“You all know he’s a gamer, and we try to play as hard as we can for him,” Hernandez said. “We just want to get some wins so he can get some sleep.”

Cincinnati went 12-4 against Houston last season. The Reds had won nine straight in the series before a 3-2 loss Sept. 27 in the last meeting.