Series preview: Cincinnati vs. Houston

Bud Norris isn’t the standard-issue, middle-of-the-rotation starter.

The Astros have hopes for Norris that belie the 16-14 career record and 4.70 ERA he took to the mound against the Brewers on Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid park.

Norris demonstrated what he could be in a 5-0 victory, laying the groundwork for the Astros’ second shutout of the season getting the first 23 outs. He allowed three hits, walked three and struck out 14 in lowering his season ERA from 3.86 to 3.03.

When did Norris know he had it happening?

“I don’t know,” Norris said. “I’m just throwing strikes and getting outs one at a time. You sit back and reflect at the end of day and look at the line score, but other than that, I’m out there one inning at a time, three outs at a time.”

Norris struck out Rickie Weeks, Carlos Gomez and Prince Fielder in the first inning on the way to the third double-digit strikeout game of his career. He added two punchouts in second, two in the third, two in the fifth and two in the seventh. Working off a 94-mph fastball, Norris got Brewer after Brewer to take halting swings at his slider.

“It was very good,” Norris said. “I had a couple that were more cutters, I had some ones that were slurves, some that were like 12-6 (on a clock). They get too many healthy swings on it, so I kept throwing it.”

His only higher single-game strikeout total was the 14 he amassed during a 3-2 victory against the Pirates on Aug. 14, 2010. In five career starts against the Brewers, Norris is 3-0 with a 2.32 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 31 innings. Norris is 7-1 with a 2.01 ERA in his past 11 starts at Minute Maid, with the Astros winning nine of those games. What’s coming together, Norris said, is “a little of everything, to be honest.”

“You never have this game figured out,” said Norris, who has a 43-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 35 2/3 innings his season. “You never will. Nobody ever does. You just have to keep learning, keep your ears open and keep pitching.”

NOTES, QUOTES

–LF Carlos Lee spent Sunday night in the hospital after he injured his left ribs in a seventh-inning collision with SS Angel Sanchez. X-rays and a CT scan revealed a left rib contusion, leaving Lee’s status as day-to-day. With the Astros leading 4-0, Lee and Sanchez made sliding attempts to catch a blooper off the bat of Mark Kotsay that fell for a double. Sanchez’s right knee made square contact with the left ribs of Lee, who remained on the ground in great pain for several minutes. An inning earlier, Lee had belted a three-run homer off LH starter Chris Narveson. Lee, who entered the game in a 2-for-27 slump that had dropped his average to .194, also scored the first Astros run after leading off the second with a single. “He’ll be OK,” Astros manager Brad Mills said. “When he gets over this, he’s going to come back and be fine. He’ll pick up right where he left off.”

–After the game, the Astros activated RH reliever Wilton Lopez (inflamed ulnar nerve) from the 15-day disabled list. The Astros optioned RH reliever Jose Valdez to Class AAA Oklahoma City.

–INF Angel Sanchez was in the lineup in place of SS Clint Barmes, who went hitless in his first two games back after missing the first month of the season with a broken left hand.

Sanchez went 0-for-4 and got in the collision that sent the Astros’ cleanup hitter, Carlos Lee, to the hospital. “I think I got him really good,” Sanchez said. He looked like he was in pain. Anytime you hit the ribs, it’s really painful. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I was trying to make a play. He was trying to make a play. It just happened. Stuff happens.”

–RHP Nelson Figueroa is out of the starting rotation, replaced by RH Rule 5 draftee Aneury Rodriguez. Astros manager Brad Mills sees Figueroa (0-3, 8.23 ERA) as a jack-of-all-trades who can help a hard-worked bullpen. Figueroa is 15-30 with a 4.90 ERA in 65 career starts, 5-5, 3.42 in 77 relief appearances. Rodriguez (0-0, 6.75 in nine relief appearances) will make his first big-league start Tuesday in Cincinnati. “Of course, I’m going to go with the positive,” Figueroa said. “I’ve been able to do a good job out of the pen most of my career. I could consider it a demotion but I’m not. I’m excited about. It’s another opportunity to get my stuff together, get my stuff right. I felt like I had some good flashes, but overall it wasn’t exactly what we needed. I was spending the bullpen way too much in my starts. Now it’s my turn to give back.”

–Manager Brad Mills wrangled with it quite a bit before giving OF Jason Bourgeois the start over Michael Bourn in CF against Milwaukee LH starter Chris Narveson. Bourn is 4-for-8 against Narveson, while Bourgeios went 3-for-5 on Saturday, scoring one run and driving in the game-winner in a 2-1 victory. “In this situation, reward is probably a good word,” Mills said. “Let him get a chance, and ride the hot horse a little bit. If he feels good and he’s swinging the bat and having confidence, maybe these things can carry over.”

–1B Brett Wallace extended his hitting streak to a career-long 10 games. He’s batting .538 (21-for-39) during the streak to lift his season mark to .382.

BY THE NUMBERS: 2.39 –- The ERA of the Astros starting pitchers during their 3-3 home stand. In victories against the Brewers in the final two games, Wandy Rodriguez and Bud Norris combined to work 15 2/3 scoreless innings, allow 10 hits, walk three and strike out 17.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “I wanted to try to let him take a little breath. I just don’t want him to put so much pressure on himself that it just drives him up a wall. It’s tough to hit here anyway. You put pressure on yourself sometimes. There’s a line to be drawn with the frustration. I don’t know if he’s there yet. He’s not to the point where he’s driving himself crazy. Hopefully it doesn’t get to that point.” -– Astros manager Brad Mills, on sitting .185-hitting third baseman Chris Johnson on Sunday.

ROSTER REPORT

MEDICAL WATCH:

–1B Brett Wallace (right hip pointer contusion) left the April 29 game. He appeared as a pinch hitter April 30, and was in the lineup May 1.

–RHP Wilton Lopez (right elbow ulnar nerve irritation) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 14. He threw a bullpen session April 28, and he threw a simulated game April 30. He was activated after the May 1 game.

–INF Jeff Keppinger (left foot surgery in January 2011) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He played his first game in extended spring training April 22.

–OF Jason Michaels (separated left shoulder) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 25.

–RHP Alberto Arias (sore right shoulder) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He threw to live hitters at extended spring training for the first time April 10. Arias felt another impingement in his shoulder April 15.

–C Jason Castro (right knee surgery in March 2011) went on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 22. He is expected to miss most or all of the season.