HOUSTON - Pat Burrell was supposed to get a night off. Maybe two. That's what Charlie Manuel usually does when Burrell slips into a funk. So Manuel filled out a lineup card without Burrell's name in it for the first time this year and handed it in to the umpires.

Burrell clearly wasn't locked in. Seven hits in his last 49 at-bats showed that. But Manuel wasn't locked in, either. So the big leftfielder's sabbatical ended in the eighth inning when he was sent up to lead off as a pinch-hitter with the score tied.

Not for long. After working a 3-2 count against reliever Wesley Wright, he lined a fastball to the Crawford Boxes in left for a home run that helped lift the Phillies to their third straight win, 7-5, over the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

"You want to play," Burrell said. "But sometimes it's good to just get a day to clear your mind. Sometimes when you're struggling, you try to do too much."

Burrell might have delivered the knockout punch, but there was plenty of credit to go around for the Phillies last night.

Ryan Howard had his second straight three-hit game, including three homers, giving him 13 for the season.

"It's a little bit better," said the first baseman, who opened the season mired in a deep slump. "I'm going to try to go for a week, a full week. I'll come in tomorrow and try to build on this."

Howard had a single, double and homer by the fifth and conceded that he realized he needed only a triple to complete the cycle. Instead, he struck out in his final two at-bats.

"It would have been nice," he said. "But I knew [speedy] Michael Bourn was in center, so it would have to have been perfect, maybe a little pinball effect."

Then there was closer Brad Lidge, facing the Astros for the first time since being traded to the Phillies in November.

He got two quick outs, gave up a single to Miguel Tejada and then had to face Lance Berkman, one of baseball's hottest hitters, representing the tying run.

"There was a lot of adrenaline," Lidge said. "With the way he's been swinging the bat, honestly, it was a lot of fun. It doesn't get much better than that. That's what we play the game for."

Berkman flied out to So Taguchi in left to end the game as Lidge earned his 12th save in as many tries. He's also allowed just one earned run in 21 innings.

For a while, it didn't look as if the game would be that close. Astros starter Roy Oswalt left his previous start last Saturday with a sore right hip and there had been some question about whether he'd be able to take his turn last night.

Manuel, noting that Oswalt was 5-1 with a 2.90 career earned run average against the Phillies, laughingly said before the game that he never doubted that the ace righthander would be ready.

"I think he ought to miss a turn, at least," the manager joked. "Unfortunately, I don't have anything to say about their team."

As it turned out, Oswalt wasn't able to match his usual success against the Phils. Maybe his hip was still bothering him. Maybe it was just one of those nights. Or maybe it was because Manuel was able to construct a lineup that included a pair of new players who have had some history of success against Oswalt.

Third baseman Pedro Feliz was 12-for-28 (.429) with two homers and seven RBI.

Rightfielder Geoff Jenkins was 18-for-51 (.353) with two homers and six RBI.

Throw in Howard (.357 with a homer and five RBI in 14 at-bats) and the Phillies had an order with a chance to do some damage.

All three of those players were right in the middle of the action as Oswalt gave up five runs on 11 hits in his six innings.

But Kyle Kendrick was unable to protect a 5-2 lead, emphasizing once again the Phillies' concern with their rotation.

Kendrick departed after the first three hitters in the sixth reached base. He hit Carlos Lee with a pitch, Hunter Pence singled and Ty Wigginton doubled to score both runners.

With the tying run in scoring position, Ryan Madson came in to face Brad Ausmus, who sacrificed Wigginton to third. After switch-hitter Geoff Blum was announced as the pinch-hitter for Oswalt, Manuel made a somewhat surprising decision and called his only lefthanded reliever, J.C. Romero, out of the bullpen.

Now, it's true that Blum was 0-for-10 batting rigthhanded. It's also true that Romero is usually saved for the later innings. It was an indication of how crucial Manuel considered that juncture of the game.

And it backfired. Blum ripped a single to left to tie the score.

"Obviously, I'm not satisfied with the way I pitched," said Kendrick, whose earned run average is now 5.19. "I've got to give us a better shot than that. I'm just glad we won."

For that, he can thank Burrell.

Extra innings

The combined earned run average of the Phillies' starters is 4.56 . . .

Jayson Werth

, who entered the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh and reached base on a fielder's choice in the eighth, left the game with a strained right oblique. He's listed as day-to-day . . .

Charlie Manuel

used all five of his bench players last night and five of his seven relievers. *