ST. LOUIS — No champagne spray awaited the Houston Astros. Just an overwhelming sense of relief.
“On a scale of 1 to 10?” rookie manager Brad Mills said after the Astros beat St. Louis 5-1 Thursday for their first win of the season, avoiding a tie for the worst start in franchise history. “It’s pretty high. And that’s just being truthful.”
The Astros escaped their 0-8 rut behind Bud Norris’ arm and bat. They were the only winless team left in the majors and came close to matching the team’s 0-9 opening in 1983.
“I can’t say I sensed that we were pressing,” outfielder Hunter Pence said. “You can’t build up emotions and get angry and play harder or something.
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“You’ve got to control what you can control, play baseball and let it happen.”
Norris (1-0) struck out a career-high nine and held the Cardinals without an earned run for five innings. He also got his first career RBI to put the Astros ahead for good.
“We came out of the gate a little bit slow, that’s fine,” said Norris, a former collegiate star at Cal Poly. “We’re not worried about that, we’ve had a little bit of pressure on us, but we’re over it. We know what we can do.”
In fact, the poor start doesn’t doom the Astros. After that slow beginning in 1983, they rebounded to finish 85-77.
Jeff Keppinger had two hits and his first three RBI of the season, matching his career best. Michael Bourn contributed his fourth straight two-hit game and scored from first on Keppinger’s hit-and-run double in the third off Kyle Lohse (0-1).
Norris’ single gave the Astros the lead in the third. Bourn reached on a forceout and Keppinger doubled.
Five runs is one off the season high for the Astros, whose total of 19 is by far the Major League low. Houston scored one unearned run in the first two games of this three-game series, and its .214 average entering the game was tied with the Indians for the worst in the majors.
Norris fanned Albert Pujols and Colby Rasmus twice each during an overpowering stint limited to five innings by 106 pitches, getting Pujols to wave at sliders well off the plate. The Cardinals capitalized only on left fielder Carlos Lee’s dropped pop fly in the fourth, and that is St. Louis’ lone score against Norris in 18 innings.
“I’ll give him credit, he’s made a lot of good pitches,” manager Tony La Russa said. But the manager added, “We’ve got to take tougher at-bats and not make it so easy. Those are a lot of strikeouts for us.”
Norris has won all three career starts against the Cardinals, the other two coming in the final two months of 2009, and topped his previous best of eight strikeouts. He lasted only 22⁄3 innings in his first start April 9 against the Phillies, allowing three runs on six hits and four walks in an 8-0 loss.
Norris, 4 for 19 as a hitter for his career, gave the Astros their third lead of the season when he lined an RBI single.
Lee dropped Felipe Lopez’s easy fly that would have ended a 1-2-3 fourth, an error that helped the Cardinals end a 16-inning drought against Norris. Yadier Molina walked and David Freese followed with an RBI single to cut the Astros’ lead to 2-1.
The Cardinals missed a scoring opportunity in the third when Lohse forgot there were two outs and was held up at third on Ryan Ludwick’s line-drive single to center.
The Astros haven’t been swept in three straight series since Sept. 13-22, 1996, by the Rockies, Braves and Marlins.