Astros top Braves in spring training

KISSIMMEE, FL Renteria was an All-Star, but Braves manager Bobby Cox feels Escobar will soon be in that same category. "He's that good," Cox said.

Escobar has outstanding range and a strong arm, but it's at the plate where the 25-year-old Cuban really stands out.

Escobar raised his spring average to .545 on Saturday, getting a double and single in three at-bats in Atlanta's 7-4 split-squad loss to the Houston Astros.

It was Escobar's fourth multihit game in exhibition play and his third in a row. He has at least one hit in each of his eight games and has driven in six runs.

"He's been playing great," Cox said.

Escobar batted .326 last year as a rookie, getting a chance to play regularly when Renteria was sidelined in August with a sprained ankle.

Atlanta left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes had a freakish second spring outing, walking five in two innings and throwing 29 balls in 52 pitches.

"I had no clue where my fastball was going," he said.

Reyes got his slider and changeup over enough to give up no hits and the only run he allowed came on a second-inning balk. "My foot got caught," said Reyes, who called his outing "very strange to say the least."

In contrast, Astros starter Wandy Rodriguez had a strong four-inning effort. The left-hander allowed three hits and a run, striking out five and walking two. He made 64 pitches in his third spring outing.

Chipper Jones drove in the first-inning run against Rodriguez with a single and also had a double in three at-bats. He has back-to-back multihit games since sitting out five days with a sore hamstring.

Hunter Pence had three RBIs for Houston, giving the Astros the lead for good with a two-run triple off Royce Ring in the fifth inning. The outfielder raised his average to .357 by going 2-for-4 and he has eight RBIs this spring.

Despite a strong wind blowing out, there were no homers until Braves minor leaguer Brandon Hicks connected for a two-run shot in the ninth inning.

Notes: Oft-injured Braves pitcher Mike Hampton rode a stationary bike on Saturday and had no discomfort a day after leaving Friday's start with a mild groin strain. Cox said he thinks Hampton will be able to start Wednesday against Cleveland. ... Atlanta's Tim Hudson makes his third spring start on Sunday against St. Louis. He is 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA, allowing eight hits in five innings. ... Atlanta reliever Peter Moylan, who has pitched just once because of a tender elbow, is scheduled to work against the Cardinals.

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