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Perez throws career-high 14 strikeouts

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- A pitcher needs to be nearly flawless to have
a chance of beating the Houston Astros these days. Oliver Perez was
that and more.

Perez ended the Astros' 12-game winning streak with the most
dominating start of his short career, striking out 14 in the
Pittsburgh Pirates' 3-1 victory Thursday in the first game of a
doubleheader.

"It's the best game of my career," said Perez, who started
against Houston only because the Pirates were rained out Wednesday
against Milwaukee. "When I found out (he would oppose Houston), I
said, `That's fine.' "

The Astros had scored at least five runs in each game of a
winning streak that matched the franchise high and was the longest
in the NL since Atlanta won 15 in a row in 2000. Houston, which
averaged nine runs during its streak, began the day with a slim
lead in the NL wild-card race.

Perez (10-8) allowed three hits, an unearned run and walked one
over eight innings in joining Bob Veale as only the pitchers in the
Pirates' 118-season history to strike out 200 in a season. After
his career-high 14 Thursday, Perez has 212. Veale struck out 200 or
more four times, last doing so in 1969.

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Perez isn't as physically intimidating
as the 6-foot-6, 260-pound Veale was, but threw his slider for
strikes and had excellent movement on a fastball that seemed to get
tougher to hit with each passing inning.

"The story on him right now is it takes a couple of innings to
find his rhythm and his arm slot, and by the third he started
cruising," Astros manager Phil Garner said.

Perez leads the majors by averaging 11 strikeouts and has nine
double-digit strikeout games this season. But this was his most
impressive outing, considering the Astros' streak and the fact the
left-hander was coming off an 8-6 loss Friday to Roger Clemens and
the Astros in which he allowed four homers.

"That game I threw the ball, I didn't pitch," Perez said.
"This game, I didn't throw the ball, I pitched."

The Astros barely put the ball in play after the early innings,
as Perez struck out five in a row over the sixth and seventh
innings, and eight in a span of 13 batters from the fourth through
seventh. Jeff Kent's one-out single in the fourth was Houston's
final hit.

The Astros' only run came when right fielder Rob Mackowiak
dropped Craig Biggio's two-out fly ball in the eighth for an error.
Perez struck out Carlos Beltran to get out of that inning, then was
lifted after throwing 114 pitches, 80 for strikes.

"He wasn't going back out there," manager Lloyd McClendon
said. "We want him to be able to do this for the next 15 years and
if he goes out there and throws 140 pitches, he won't."

Jose Mesa pitched the ninth for his 38th save in 43
opportunities.

The Pirates had lost five of six and 21 of 27 before a pair of
rookies got key hits against Carlos Hernandez (1-2), who gave up
five hits and walked four in 5 2-3 innings.

Hernandez's wildness hurt him in the first when a walk and a hit
batter led to Tony Alvarez's two-out RBI single.

Jose Castillo doubled leading off the fourth for the second of
his three hits, then scored a batter later on Jason Kendall's
sacrifice fly.

Ty Wigginton added a run-scoring single in the seventh off Chad
Harville.

Game notes
Perez's previous high was 13 strikeouts, accomplished three
times. ... Perez is the first Pirates pitcher to strike out 14
since Jose DeLeon on April 16, 1985. Veale twice struck out 16, the
franchise record. ... Houston hasn't been shut out since a 5-0 loss
to Seattle on June 7. ... Perez, acquired with Jason Bay from San
Diego in the Brian Giles trade last year, remains under .500 for
his career (18-23), mostly because he was 4-10 with the Padres in
2003. ... Houston is 10-3 against Pittsburgh. ... The Astros'
winning streak tied an earlier Tampa Bay 12-game run as the majors'
longest this season. ... Houston had won 10 of 11 road games. The
Astros began a stretch of 14 road games in a 17-game span. ...
Castillo is 35-of-89 over his last 28 games. ... Perez is fourth in
the NL in strikeouts.