Orioles 8, Astros 5

Larry Bigbie earmarked Monday as his fresh start to the 2005 season, but it began ominously. He had trouble getting a morning flight out of Toledo, where he had played during a rehabilitation assignment with the Class AAA Ottawa Lynx, so he arrived at the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse about three hours before game time.

Even after Bigbie made it back to Baltimore, a season-long hitting slump, a tender left hamstring and the inactivity of spending the last 16 days on the disabled list left him with low expectations as he outlined his hopes for his first start back.

"I just want to get going," Bigbie said. "I want to stay healthy and try to get my swing back."

He hit a home run and two singles. He reached base four times. He scored twice. He stole a base. He made three running catches in left field.

In an 8-5 win over the Houston Astros in front of 23,297 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on Monday night, Bigbie had, by all accounts, one of his best games of the season. He ignited the offense and built crucial confidence in a near-perfect return to the Orioles' lineup.

"The kid's got talent," Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "To come back and do what he did? That's good for him. That's good for the club."

In his first big league at-bat in more than two weeks, Bigbie helped propel the Orioles to one of their best offensive innings of the season. Jay Gibbons drove in Rafael Palmeiro with a home run in the second inning to tie the game at 2. With the crowd already on its feet, Bigbie stepped to the plate and swung at the first pitch Astros starter Brandon Backe (6-4) threw him -- and smacked it 385 feet, 10 rows into the left field stands.

That home run, Bigbie's first of the season, was buried later in the inning by one highlight after another: David Newhan singled; Melvin Mora doubled; Miguel Tejada beat out an infield single; Sammy Sosa drove in two runs with a double.

When the second inning finally ended -- on a 400-foot Palmeiro fly out that nearly became the Orioles' third home run of the inning -- the Orioles had sent 10 batters to the plate for six runs and seven hits, including two home runs and three doubles. Every Oriole starter but catcher Sal Fasano reached base in the inning, which all but put the game out of reach.

Provided with such substantial run support, Orioles starter Hayden Penn (1-0) managed to earn his first major league win despite having his worst outing of the year. The 21-year-old Penn allowed five runs on seven hits in 52/3 innings; he had not allowed more than three runs in any of his previous starts.

"Overall it was pretty good," Penn said, "but I threw a couple pitches up that hurt me."

Bigbie, though, made sure Penn's effort was good enough. With two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning and the Orioles up 7-5, he slapped a ground ball through the middle for a single that drove in Sosa. It was Bigbie's third hit of the game -- the first time he has had three hits in a game all season -- and it enhanced a resounding comeback neither Bigbie nor the Orioles ever dreamed possible.

Only a month ago, Bigbie feared his nagging left hamstring might dampen his entire season. He suffered the strain during a game May 12 and it forced him to miss five games. He came back to play six games in significant pain before resigning himself to a full rehabilitation, during which both his hamstring and his mind-set recovered.

When Bigbie left Toledo on Monday morning, fresh off a home run and a double in his final game with the Lynx, he vowed to forget about a start to the season that he termed a disgrace. Instead, he decided, he would give the Orioles what they needed from him: a reliable left-handed bat, sneaky speed and athletic fielding.

"I'm a better player than I showed before," Bigbie said. "I had to clear my head and get a fresh start. I hard to forget about all the negativity -- the injuries, the home run slump, all of it. I needed to work on my hamstring, obviously, but just in terms of getting a new start, that break might have been the best thing for me."

"To come back and do what he did? That's good for him. That's good for the club," Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said of Larry Bigbie, above.Houston Astros starter Brandon Backe throws down the rosin bag in disgust after giving up six runs on seven hits in the second inning.