Niekro's two-run shot staked Jason Schmidt to a quick lead and held up for the San Francisco Giants in a 4-0 victory over the Houston Astros on Friday night, sending Pettitte to his first loss in nearly seven weeks.
"It was supposed to be a two-seamer down and away and it came over the plate," Pettitte said. "It was a horrible pitch. It was so bad I didn't think he could hit it out."
Schmidt (8-6) outpitched Pettitte to win for the first time in four starts since beating the Dodgers at Los Angeles on July 14. Schmidt dominated Houston's talented lineup, allowing just three hits, striking out five and walking three in eight innings.
The right-hander looked like the pitcher who made the NL All-Star team in 2003 and '04 and won 17 and 18 games, respectively, in those two seasons.
"I felt good the past several starts really," Schmidt said. "I got a couple runs early and it was nice to have a little padding there and go out and do a few extra things, like it used to be."
LaTroy Hawkins pitched a perfect ninth to complete the three-hitter, and now the Giants have to face Houston's other two star pitchers: Roy Oswalt on Saturday and Roger Clemens in Sunday's series finale.
"We have to wake up early tomorrow and show this is for real, and make it bigger," San Francisco skipper Felipe Alou said of his team's two-game winning streak. "Everything is crucial, every game. We know the other clubs will start winning, too -- the Dodgers and Padres. We've got to stay within striking distance."
Winn, who has provided a big lift at the top of San Francisco's lineup since being acquired in a trade with the Seattle Mariners last Saturday, was hit by a pitch to start the eighth, then came around to score on a throwing error by Adam Everett trying to turn a double play. Winn is batting .467 with six runs scored since making his debut with the Giants on Tuesday.
Schmidt improved to 4-9 in 16 starts against the Astros and has won his last four decisions dating to October 2001. After Brad Ausmus led off the third with a single, Schmidt retired 18 of the final 20 batters he faced and didn't allow another hit.
The Astros were shut out for just the second time since June 4.
"Jason Schmidt pitched great," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "He hasn't been pitching that great this year but he did tonight. Niekro hit a ball and I don't know how he hit it."
Pettitte (9-8), the NL pitcher of the month for July making his first career start in the Giants' waterfront ballpark, was trying to win his seventh consecutive decision and hadn't lost since June 14 at Baltimore. He was 6-0 with a 0.80 ERA over his previous eight outings and allowed more than one earned run for the first time since that June defeat to the Orioles.
The left-hander allowed seven hits and three runs in seven innings, matched his season high with eight strikeouts and walked one.
Niekro connected for his 11th home run with a shot to left in the first inning, another huge hit for the rookie a day after his tiebreaking two-run double in the eighth of a 6-4 victory against Colorado.
It was just the third home run allowed by Pettitte since June 14. The Giants are one of only four teams Pettitte hasn't beaten in his career -- along with Houston, the New York Yankees and the Chicago Cubs.
The Astros dropped consecutive games for the first time since being swept at St. Louis from July 15-17. They had won 15 of 17 before Thursday's 7-3 loss at Arizona.
- Pettitte is 0-3 in three career starts against San Francisco.
- The teams split a four-game set at Minute Maid Park in May.
- Giants OF Moises Alou missed his third game in a row but could play as soon as Saturday, though his manager, father Felipe, might let him rest his tight right hamstring until Tuesday.
- Astros RHP Brandon Backe, nursing a strained muscle near his rib cage sustained during a throwing session between starts last month, threw on the side Friday and will do so again Sunday. He is scheduled for a simulated game back in Houston on Tuesday, the day he's eligible to come off the DL. Garner doesn't expect to activate Backe right away because he doesn't think he'll be able to go more than 50-60 pitches and doesn't want to strain the bullpen.