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Four-run eighth inning lifts streaking Nats past Astros

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Roy Oswalt was cruising through the Washington
Nationals lineup with incredible efficiency, seemingly on pace for
the shutout.

Then came a moment of indiscretion so stunning it froze the
umpires. With two outs in the sixth inning and an 0-2 count on
Alfonso Soriano, the Houston Astros ace interrupted his windup and
started walking toward baserunner Damian Jackson on third.

That's a balk. Jackson was awarded home to tie the game, Oswalt
was lifted for a pinch hitter in the eighth, and the Nationals
exploited the Astros' bullpen with a four-run eighth to take a 5-1
victory Wednesday night.

"I knew I did it," Oswalt said. "I've never lost a game
because of balking, but we pretty much lost the game right there.
We had complete control of the game and with two strikes on
Soriano, I thought I could get him fishing at something outside of
the zone. We should have won that game, 1-0. I felt I had good
enough stuff where I felt I could keep them off the bases."

As obvious as the balk was, Oswalt nearly got away with it. The
umpires were silent until Nationals manager Frank Robinson walked
onto the field and approached home plate umpire Larry Young, who
called the other three umpires together before pointing Jackson
home.

"It should have been called by me initially," Young said. "We
saw it on replay. It was an obvious balk. I didn't call it. I had a
question in my mind whether he was on the rubber or not, but I
deferred to my partners. They said he was definitely on the rubber,
so therefore it was a balk, but I feel in retrospect that I should
have avoided that situation altogether by calling it immediately
because it was so obvious."

Oswalt was otherwise masterful, allowing two hits, striking out
seven and facing only two batters over the minimum over seven
innings. He had retired 14 straight batters before Jackson doubled
to open the sixth and advanced on a groundout to set up the balk.

"We were glad to see him go," Robinson said. "He was almost
unhittable."

With Oswalt gone, Ryan Zimmerman led off the eighth with a
triple off Dan Wheeler (0-3). Jackson struck out, then Brad Lidge
came on and failed to retire any of the four batters he faced,
allowing RBI hits to pinch-hitter Daryle Ward, Soriano and Royce
Clayton and allowing another run on a wild pitch. Lidge's ERA
ballooned to 6.53, and the Astros are 1-2 at the start of their
10-game road trip.

"We had a team that was really flat after thumping them on
Monday night, and we put them back in the series," Houston manager
Phil Garner said. "And now we have to scramble just to split with
them."

The Nationals won their fourth in five games, but they had to
wonder if some sort of hex was afoot when two starters left early
with bizarre injuries.

Right fielder Jose Guillen could only play two innings because
of an eye injury, suffered when he tried to scratch his left eye
with his batting glove during batting practice. Catcher Wiki
Gonzalez was gone after three innings, injured when he was hit in
the head by Preston Wilson's backswing in the second. Gonzalez was
diagnosed with a mild concussion and a strained neck muscle.

But Nationals rookie starter Mike O'Connor kept the Nationals
competitive with six strong innings, allowing three hits and only
one run -- Morgan Ensberg's second-inning homer, his 16th of the
season. The win went to Gary Majewski (2-2), one of four Nationals
relievers who combined to pitch three scoreless innings.

Still, the Nationals doubt they could have won without the balk.

"What surprises me about that call is that nobody said anything
in the first place," Garner said. "OK, he balked, but none of
them? I understand Larry's point, he can't see when he's on the
rubber. But the other two guys at first and third, they've got to
see it and somebody's got to say something."

Game notes
Washington's Santiago Ramirez, one of two relievers brought
up from Triple-A New Orleans on Monday, made his major league debut
by pitching a scoreless seventh inning. ... Guillen was playing his
second straight game after missing five with a strained right
hamstring. He struck out in his only plate appearance before
leaving with the eye injury. ... The Astros have lost eight of
their last 10 on the road. ... The game was the 100th at RFK
Stadium since baseball returned to Washington last year. ... Before
the game, the Nationals players and front office staff held their
first meetings with the new ownership group that is expected to
take over in a few weeks. "It was a kind of a quick
meet-and-greet," shortstop Royce Clayton said.