HOUSTON — Matt Albers is showing the Houston Astros how badly he wants to stay in the majors.
The 24-year-old right-hander pitched seven innings of three-hit ball, Lance Berkman homered for the second consecutive game and Houston beat the St. Louis Cardinals 2-1 on Thursday.
“I felt pretty good,” Albers said. “My fastball was down in the zone and I mixed my curve in. Things went pretty well for me. I think this is one of my better starts.”
Albers (4-6) walked four and struck out three, shutting down the Cardinals’ offense for the second time this season. He earned his first major league victory in St. Louis on May 5, giving up three hits in 7 1-3 innings in the Astros’ 13-0 win.
But Albers lost his next three decisions after that, and the Astros sent him down to the minor leagues on May 24. He made nine starts at Triple-A Round Rock and impressed the team enough to earn a call-up on June 28.
Albers has made six starts since and learned something from all of them.
“I’m starting to feel more comfortable on the mound,” he said. “I’m trying to just trust my stuff and try not to make too good a pitch. I needed to get my brains beat in for a while to force me to get out of some of those things.”
Chad Qualls relieved Albers to start the eighth and the Cardinals got two singles, but couldn’t score. Brad Lidge pitched a perfect ninth to earn his 14th save.
The Astros won for the fourth time in 11 games and took a series at Minute Maid Park for the first time since sweeping the Cubs from Aug. 6-8. Houston has won two of three since interim manager Cecil Cooper took over for Phil Garner, who was fired Monday.
Astros owner Drayton McLane also fired general manager Tim Purpura, and Cooper thinks the shakeup has rejuvenated the clubhouse.
“I feel some good vibes,” Cooper said.
Joel Pineiro (3-2) lost for the first time in five starts. The Cardinals began the day two games behind first-place Chicago in the NL Central. The Cubs played second-place Milwaukee on Thursday night.
Mike Lamb walked with one out in the Astros’ second and Luke Scott doubled down the left-field line to make it 1-0. Scott was tagged out trying to stretch his hit into a triple.
Pineiro led off the third with a single to left, his first hit of the season and only the third of his career. He reached third on Brendan Ryan’s double and scored on David Eckstein’s RBI groundout to tie it.
Berkman led off the fourth with a homer to right on Pineiro’s first pitch, a changeup. Pineiro retired the next three hitters in order, but he was muttering to himself back in the dugout about the pitch he threw to Berkman.
“I’m going to be playing that pitch in my head for a few more days,” Pineiro said. “Against a hitter like Berkman, he sees that ball and his eyes open up and he did some damage. You’re just hoping he fouls it off or it goes somewhere else.”
It was Berkman’s 26th homer of the season. He also led off an inning with a homer in Wednesday’s 7-0 victory and came into Thursday’s game batting .412 in his last 18 games.
“You never think, in the fourth inning, that it’s going to hold up,” Berkman said. “But our pitching really came through.”
Albers retired six in a row after walking Albert Pujols with two outs in the third. Eckstein reached on an error by shortstop Eric Bruntlett, and Rick Ankiel walked with two outs in the fifth. Albers struck out Pujols to end the inning, prompting loud cheers from the sparse crowd.
The Cardinals were just as flustered as they were on Wednesday night, when they mustered only four hits off Roy Oswalt.
“We were competing in our at-bats. Give credit to their pitchers,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said.
Houston rookie Hunter Pence, elevated to the top of the lineup Wednesday by Cooper, led off the sixth with a single. He sprinted to third when Pineiro threw a wild pickoff try that skidded past Pujols for an error.
Pineiro escaped, getting Chris Burke to pop out and retiring Berkman and Carlos Lee on grounders.
Chris Duncan pinch-hit for Pineiro in the seventh and grounded out. Albers walked Ryan with two outs, but got Eckstein on a popup.