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Astros preserve playoff hopes with late rally vs. Braves

ATLANTA (AP) -- Andy Pettitte was relaxing about 3:15 p.m.
Saturday when Houston manager Phil Garner walked up with a look
that told Pettitte everything: It would be up to the veteran
left-hander -- on short rest and short notice -- to preserve the
Astros' playoff hopes.

"The way he looked at me, I knew something was up," Pettitte
said of the unexpected meeting with Garner. "(The game) was
mine."

Pettitte came through on three days' rest, giving up one run in
seven innings, and pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro's single drove in
the tiebreaking run in Houston's three-run ninth to give the Astros
a 5-4 win over the Atlanta Braves on Saturday night.

"Andy pitched a great game; he's one of the best clutch
pitchers around," said Houston's Lance Berkman.

The Astros survived in the bottom of the ninth as the Braves
scored two runs off relievers Brad Lidge and Dan Wheeler.

Pettitte was scheduled to pitch Sunday, but now that assignment
goes to rookie Chris Sampson. Pettitte allowed only four hits in
seven innings and left with a 2-1 lead.

"He was brilliant, just brilliant," Garner said. "He just did
a superb job."

Adam LaRoche hit reliever Trever Miller's first pitch in the
eighth inning for a game-tying home run to right field.

The Astros answered quickly in the ninth with help from the two
errors by the Braves. Brad Ausmus' sharp grounder off Braves closer
Bob Wickman (0-2) bounced past second baseman Marcus Giles for the
first error. Pinch-hitter Chris Burke followed with an infield
single to third base, and Ausmus advanced to third on Chipper
Jones' throw to first.

Palmeiro's single to right drove in Ausmus for a 3-2 lead.

"In order to win games, you have to have your share of the
breaks," Palmeiro said after tying the Houston record with his
20th pinch-hit of the season.

Palmeiro was forced out at second on Mike Lamb's fielder's
choice grounder. Lance Berkman followed with a grounder to
shortstop Edgar Renteria, whose throw to second base sailed into
right field as Burke scored from third and Lamb from first. All
three runs in the inning were unearned.

Miller (2-3) gave up one run in one inning. Wheeler gave up RBI
singles to Brian McCann and Daryle Ward before striking out LaRoche
for his ninth save in 12 chances.

"Nerve-wracking," Garner said. "My goodness, I tell you we
can't do things the easy way."

Berkman and Aubrey Huff homered for Houston, which faces another
must-win game Sunday. However, the Astros also need a loss by St.
Louis to preserve their playoff hopes.

After the Cardinals beat Milwaukee 3-2 earlier Saturday, Houston
had to beat Atlanta to avoid being eliminated from the NL Central
Division race. Houston is 1½ games behind St. Louis.

If Houston wins and St. Louis loses Sunday, the Cardinals would
be forced to play a makeup game against San Francisco Monday. A St.
Louis loss in that game would force a one-game playoff Tuesday
between the Astros and Cardinals for the division title.

"We've been in a must-win situation for quite a while now,"
Garner said.

Said Pettitte: "We're very thankful to have the opportunity to
win tomorrow and hopefully the Cardinals will lose and make things
interesting."

The Braves, who will start John Smoltz on Sunday, recognize they
are playing a desperate team.

"Having to beat Smoltzie, the way we're playing right now and
having to rely on St. Louis to lose two games, it's looking bleak
for them," Atlanta's Chipper Jones said. "But funnier things have
happened."

Despite his short rest, Pettitte looked strong as he gave up
only one run and struck out seven batters. He opened with four
perfect innings until Andruw Jones' leadoff single in the fifth.
Pettitte was assisted by the free-swinging Braves batters. He threw
only six pitches in the first inning and only 79 pitches through
seven innings.

Braves starter Lance Cormier gave up a long homer to Berkman in
the first inning. The Atlanta bullpen was up after Cormier loaded
the bases on singles by Luke Scott and Huff and a walk to Craig
Biggio, but Adam Everett's fly ball to right ended the inning.

Berkman's 45th homer landed near an outfield restaurant sign
that shows the distance from home plate to be 452 feet.

Huff's 12th homer to center in the sixth inning gave Houston a
2-0 lead.

LaRoche walked to lead off the sixth, moved to third on a single
to right by Willy Aybar and scored when Marcus Giles pushed a
sacrifice bunt toward first base, cutting the lead to 2-1.

Despite the rough first inning, Cormier lasted 5 1/3 innings,
giving up eight hits and two runs.

Game notes
Craig Biggio was caught stealing in the sixth inning for
only the second time in five attempts this season. ... Berkman's
135 RBI matches Jeff Bagwell's team record set in 1997. Berkman's
45 homers are the second-highest total in team history, trailing
Bagwell's 47 in 2000. ... Berkman dropped a pop foul hit by
pinch-hitter Chipper Jones in the eighth inning for an error.