Astros score early, then hold off Bucs

Astros get hot early, then hold off Bucs

PITTSBURGH -- With one television in the visitors clubhouse at PNC Park tuned into the Marlins-Mets game on Wednesday and the other showing the Phillies and Braves, the Houston Astros watched with satisfaction, knowing they wouldn't fall in the Wild Card standings no matter the outcome of those two games.

The Astros couldn't care less how they win their games now, or how they won any of the previous 152 they've played this year. Some wins are pretty, some are ugly, and some, like Wednesday, were just plain confusing.

An eight-run lead after two innings, with Roy Oswalt on the mound, against the last place team in the NL Central -- well, that's about as close to a sure thing as the Astros could get this year.

And granted, the did beat the Pittsburgh Pirates, but not quite in the blowout fashion they expected early. The Astros did most of their damage in the first two innings, but in the end, it was just enough to carry them to a 12-8 victory over the Pirates before a small crowd of 16,266 in downtown Pittsburgh.

"The biggest thing is for us to get a win," Oswalt said. "It doesn't matter how we get it. That's what we're looking for."

The win allowed the Astros to maintain their two-game lead over the Phillies, who beat the Braves, and they increased their lead over the Marlins to four games, following Florida's loss to the Mets.

Pittsburgh starter Kip Wells gave up four runs before recording his first out in the opening frame. Lance Berkman's three-run homer capped the four-run inning, and Mike Lamb's three-run shot off Wells in the second put the Astros ahead, 8-0.

"He's been extremely tough against us," manager Phil Garner said of Wells. "Tonight, his wildness hurt him, but our guys were a little patient tonight. We didn't swing at too many bad pitches off him. We made him pay when he came across the plate."

Surely, at that point, this was a no-doubter; so much so that Garner felt entirely comfortable taking out a travel-weary Craig Biggio, who flew in and out of New Jersey that day for a funeral, in the third inning.

"I took Biggio out early thinking that it looked like we had some runs," Garner said. "We got Roy on the mound, you think things looked pretty good. A couple of innings later, things don't look so good. We needed to score them tonight to make them stand up, and we did. That's one of the times that we did a good job of putting runs on the board."

The Bucs weren't too shabby at that, either. Oswalt yielded an RBI double to Jason Bay in the third, and Jack Wilson's RBI single in the fourth preceded a throwing error by Houston third baseman Morgan Ensberg, which allowed a third Pirates run to score.

Craig Wilson tripled to lead off the fifth, the Bucs right fielder scored on a grounder by Ryan Doumit and just like that, the Astros' lead was cut in half with four more innings to play.

Oswalt, who improved to 18-12 on the year and kept alive his quest for a second consecutive 20-win season, commended the Pirates for staying aggressive even when down by eight runs.

"They battled well for a very young team," he said. "They got a lot of hits right over the infield and they knew with an eight-run lead, if I got behind in the count, that I would challenge them in the strike zone. They hit the balls hard that I had to throw for a strike. They're an aggressive team, for sure."

So aggressive that Garner had closer Brad Lidge warming up in the eighth and the ninth. Had the Astros not tacked on two runs off Rick White in the final frame, Lidge would have had a most unlikely save opportunity.

"You don't want to have to get in that position, but it's also a game you don't want to let get away, either," Garner said. "It's absolutely critical."

As resilient as the Pirates hitters were, the Astros managed to one-up them inning by inning.

Berkman singled to right center in the fifth, driving in Ensberg for his fifth RBI on the night.

Jason Lane homered off Brian Meadows in the seventh to stretch the Astros' lead to 10-4. But the Pirates weren't ready to go quietly. Doumit's two-run homer off Russ Springer in the bottom of that frame narrowed the lead to four runs, and Freddy's Sanchez's solo blast off Dan Wheeler brought the score to 10-7.

"Lance comes out and gets a big hit, and Lamb gets a big one," Lane said. "And you're feeling pretty good with that lead. But [the Pirates] just battled. They battled us in all of the games, they battled all of our starters. They don't give in. It was nice for us to keep the offense going throughout the game and keep tacking on here and there."

With 10 games remaining in the regular season, the Astros are now ready to admit they're scoreboard watching in earnest. Such an act is, in most clubhouses, not "cool" until the races get down to the nitty-gritty.

By now, however, many players are more candid.

"I've been watching [the scoreboard] for a month," Lane said. "Any help you can get is great."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.