It's Astros Who Get the Big(gio) Innings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Craig Biggio handled a curveball from Ismael Valdes and a knuckleball from Tom Candiotti, generating more than the slumbering Dodger offense could handle Sunday.

Biggio's solo homer off Valdes and two-run, tie-breaking homer off Candiotti in the eighth powered the Houston Astros to a 3-1 victory at Dodger Stadium that looked a lot like their 2-1 victory of Saturday night. The Dodgers got only six hits and wasted another strong performance by a starting pitcher.

"If you give this pitching staff some runs to work with it's obvious what they're going to do, but we're letting too many big innings fall by the wayside," catcher Mike Piazza said of the offensive inconsistency.

"I still don't think we're going to be a bombs-away team, but we should be scoring more runs than we are. There's some flatness there. We need to kick ourselves in the butt."

Houston rookie Chris Holt, who had allowed a National League-high 26 hits in the 19 2/3 innings of his three previous starts this season, turned back a Dodger threat in the first inning, permitted a solo homer by Raul Mondesi in the sixth and watched Tom Martin and John Hudek retire the Dodgers in the eighth and ninth.

Half of the Dodgers' six hits were by Brett Butler, but his leadoff single in the first and an ensuing bunt single by Wilton Guerrero were wasted. Mondesi struck out, Piazza lined out and Eric Karros grounded into a force play. It was the last time the Dodgers put more than one runner on base in an inning.

"It's tough to pinpoint the problems, but we haven't been able to work as a team, get the big hit, keep an inning alive, avoid the double play," said Piazza. "We've obviously grounded into too many double plays [20, to the opposition's five]. Hopefully, we can find a way to manufacture runs and not depend on home runs."

The Dodgers' 2.22 earned-run average is the best in the majors, and a seven-inning performance by Valdes in which he allowed only three hits and the Biggio homer in the third helped mark the 14th time in 16 games that Dodger pitchers have given up three earned runs or fewer. But that remarkable streak is not reflected in a 10-6 record.

Of the offensive struggle, Manager Bill Russell said, "We're going to turn it around, I just can't tell you when. Hopefully, Tuesday night [when the Dodgers resume play against the St. Louis Cardinals]."

Sunday's game turned on a decision by Russell to pitch to Biggio with a runner at second and first base open in the eighth.

Candiotti, who had allowed only two hits in the eight innings of his six previous relief appearances, a role he is still adjusting to, yielded a one-out double to Tim Bogar on a hanging curve but got pinch-hitter Bill Spiers on a fly to right. That brought up the right-handed hitting Biggio, batting .271 compared to the .192 of Pat Listach, the ensuing left-handed hitter.

"If I had fallen behind we were going to put him on," Candiotti said. "But when I threw the first pitch for a strike it gave us some leeway and we went after him with knuckleballs. I still don't know if he hit it or the ball hit his bat."

Biggio, last season's All-Star second baseman, pounded a 1-and-1 pitch into the left field pavilion. He had eight hits in 29 previous at-bats against Candiotti, but no home runs and only two runs batted in. Candiotti had never faced Listach.

"I'm sure they were thinking, 'We'll throw him some nasty knuckleballs and if we walk him, we walk him,"' Biggio said. "He made a good pitch that I had to go down and get. I just as easily could have popped it up."

Candiotti hadn't pitched in a week and doesn't always know where the knuckler is going. Some in the crowd of 33,250 voiced their displeasure as he left later in the inning, but Candiotti said it wasn't unexpected.

"You lose and get booed and win and get cheered," he said.

There was little to cheer again about the Dodger offense.

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