Astros rely on pitching

Wild-card leader's stingy staff compensates for weak hitting

Baseball: National League

September 19, 2005

Astros manager Phil Garner has his own magic number, and Houston moved toward it yesterday.

Wandy Rodriguez pitched a career-high 7 1/3 innings, and Lance Berkman put Houston ahead to stay with a two-run, first-inning double in a 6-1 victory over the visiting Milwaukee Brewers that extended the Astros' winning streak to five.

Houston, which had just six hits, increased its lead over the Philadelphia Phillies to 1 1/2 games in the National League wild-card race. The Florida Marlins remained 2 1/2 games back of the Astros (81-68). The Washington Nationals are 4 1/2 games behind.

"This was a big win for us," Garner said. "But our goal is to get 15 games over .500 and then assess where we are."

Garner wouldn't say what was magical about 15 games over.

"I just feel if we go to 15 over we'll be in pretty good position," Garner said. "We're playing confidently now. At least we're pitching confidently. I don't know if we're hitting as confidently as I'd like."

Houston started yesterday second in the league in pitching with a team ERA of 3.52 but was next to last in team batting at .256.

"We knew our pitching staff was the backbone of the team," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "The question mark is our hitting. It isn't over yet. We've still got two weeks to go, and the offense has to come around. We're day to day with our offense."

The pitching has been especially good the past six games allowing nine runs.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants remain 5 1/2 games behind the San Diego Padres in the NL West. They have won three straight after losing the opener to the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"It's nice to win," the Giants' Barry Bonds said. "I still feel like I'm in the spring training mode. Sometimes I feel really good. Sometimes I feel off balance. Those are things you go through in spring training. I'm trying to put it together in such a short window of time."

Bonds, after recovering from three knee operations, began playing last week. He hit home run No. 705 yesterday, his second this year.

Bonds said he won't allow himself to think about the 10 home runs he needs to pass Babe Ruth (714), second behind Hank Aaron (755).

"No, no. Right now we're trying to chase a team that's in front of us," Bonds said. "We've got to catch them."

With Bonds batting cleanup and Moises Alou following in the fifth hole behind him for the first time all year, injury-prone San Francisco moved closer to having its projected lineup coming out of spring training. First baseman J.T. Snow is nursing a pulled hamstring.

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