WASHINGTON - What's the hottest thing in Houston these days?

It's not the sizzling fajitas at Pappasito's or the smoked brisket at Goode Co. Barbeque, though both are big hitters.

The hottest thing in Houston is Lance Berkman's bat, and the Phillies will get an up-close look at it as they open a four-game series against the Astros tonight at Minute Maid Park.

"He's crushing the ball," Phils manager Charlie Manuel said. "When you're getting him out, you're more or less fooling him."

Berkman, a switch-hitting, four-time all-star, entered last night's game against the Chicago Cubs hitting .507, with eight homers and 21 RBIs, in his previous 19 games.

"I've seen this before," said Phillies closer Brad Lidge, who was a teammate of Berkman's for six seasons before joining the Phillies in a November trade. "He's one of the best hitters in the game. There aren't too many hitters that can match his natural skill.

"I've spoken to him and I told him, 'Stay hot - until we get there.' "

Berkman entered last night hitting .388, which was second in the majors to the .409 of Atlanta's Chipper Jones. He was leading the majors in homers with 16, total bases with 132, runs with 49, extra-base hits with 33, and slugging at .776. His 44 RBIs were the most in the National League. (Texas' Josh Hamilton was No. 1 in the majors with 51.)

Over his career, Berkman is hitting .287, with nine homers and 40 RBIs, in 52 games against the Phillies.

Berkman isn't the only producer in the Astros' lineup. Shortstop Miguel Tejada entered last night ranked among the league leaders in batting average at .342, RBIs with 34, and runs with 38.

Former Phillie Michael Bourn, who was part of the Lidge trade, entered last night leading the league with 19 stolen bases. However, he was hitting just .196.

Lidge returns

Lidge wasn't sure what type of reception he would get from the Houston fans. He had a 1.90 ERA in 80 games for the Astros in 2004, then saved 42 games and made the all-star team in 2005.

He gave up a mammoth home run to St. Louis' Albert Pujols in the 2005 National League Championship Series - the Astros still won the pennant - and struggled with consistency the next two seasons.

"Hopefully, I'll get some applause," Lidge said. "We'll see. I spent over five years there. I have some pretty cool memories on what we were able to accomplish."

At the time of the trade, many predicted Lidge would benefit from a change of scenery. So far, he has thrived with the Phils. He is 11 for 11 in save chances and has allowed just one earned run in 20 innings.

"I think the change-of-scenery stuff can be overrated," Lidge said. "But in my case, because I was ready to go and ended up with a team like the Phillies that was ready to win and has a lot of energy and excitement, I think it has helped me."

Burrell's bat

Pat Burrell

went 0 for 4 with a walk last night. He is hitting .143 (7 for 49), with one homer and two RBIs, in his last 15 games. His average has dropped from .330 to 271.

"He has the same stance and setup," Manuel said. "He's just going through a period where he's not hitting. The only thing I see him doing wrong is he's starting to chase bad breaking balls. He's pulling off the ball a little."

Burrell hit .326, with eight homers and 25 RBIs, in 28 games in April. He is 12 for 63 (.190) in 19 games in May.

"That's why you have a lineup," Manuel said. "When somebody is struggling, somebody has got to pick him up."

Extra bases

Manuel started

Shane Victorino

in center field last night. Righthanded-hitting

Jayson Werth

was in right field against Nationals lefthander

Matt

Chico

. . . . Righthander

Kris Benson

, rehabilitating his surgically repaired right elbow in Florida, will pitch four innings or throw 60 pitches in an extended spring training game against Tampa Bay today. If all goes well, Benson will pitch again Tuesday. . . . Phillies catcher

Chris Coste

took advantage of his visit to Washington and traveled to Capitol Hill yesterday to meet with

Sen. Kent Conrad

of his native North Dakota. Coste presented Conrad with an autographed copy of his book,

The 33-Year-Old Rookie

.

- Jim Salisbury

Phillies Notes:

The hottest thing in Houston is Lance Berkman's bat, and the Phillies will get an up-close look at it as they open a four-game series against the Astros tonight at Minute Maid Park.

Notes, D6.