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Pence shows the way as Houston pounds LA

Pence shows the way as Houston pounds LA

HOUSTON -- For the Astros, the final few weeks of the regular season have so much more meaning than simply playing out the string.

Sure, the Astros have a legitimate shot at finishing with a .500 record -- something that seemed highly unlikely two months into the season. But with so many youngsters playing huge roles, each night at the ballpark serves as a test lab of sorts for the kids.

How will they perform under pressure? Can they make the clutch plays in tight games?

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The young Astros passed their latest test with terrific marks on Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, getting contributions up and down the lineup to beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 7-4, and earn a split the four-game series.

"There's no doubt that with a game on the line -- be it a ground ball hit to you, or a fly ball hit to you, or you're up at the plate in a close game -- it definitely raises their experience a little bit and how they're able to go through things," Astros manager Brad Mills said.

Sunday's game didn't appear early like it would be close at all after the Astros raced to a 4-0 lead in the first inning. But the Dodgers got four runs in the fourth to tie the game.

In the fifth, rookie Brett Wallace doubled and scored on a tiebreaking RBI double by rookie Jason Castro, who came around on Geoff Blum's pinch-hit, ground-rule double to make it 6-4. Wallace went 2-for-3 with two RBIs in the game and 5-for-10 in the four-game series.

"The best way to learn something is to go through it," Wallace said. "Sometimes we're in situations we haven't been in before, but we can learn from every situation and whether it goes right or wrong, we learned something from it and we'll be better for it in the future. I think you've seen that a lot this year. Every week we've been together, we've gotten better."

The Astros, who need to finish 13-6 to reach .500, pounded out 14 hits, with every offensive starter collecting at least one hit. Hunter Pence went 3-for-4 with a two-run home run, giving him a career-high 84 RBIs. Blum's RBI single in the fifth snapped an 0-for-13 funk.

"Everyone up and down the lineup swung the bat well today," Pence said. "For the series, little things got to us -- and to come away with a split feels good. Our pitching was phenomenal and we battled, and we feel pretty good about the way we felt today."

Mills used six pitchers in relief of starter Nelson Figueroa. Gustavo Chacin (2-2) got the win by retiring Jay Gibbons -- who hit a three-run homer off Figueroa in the fourth -- on a lazy fly ball to left to leave the bases loaded in the fifth. Brandon Lyon worked the ninth for his 15th save.

"We used a lot of guys down there, and that's what September is about -- using guys in situations, and everybody for the most part threw really well and kept us right where we needed to be to score runs and win today," said Lyon, who has converted 15 save chances in a row.

Houston jumped on Dodgers starter Carlos Monasterios in the first inning, sending nine batters to the plate and scoring four times on five hits and a throwing error. Pence hit a two-run home run, his 23rd of the year, and Wallace added a two-run single to give the Astros a 4-0 lead.

"Hunter set the pace with that home run early," Wallace said. "He's one of our vets, but also one of the guys that brings a lot of energy for us. I think he set the pace with that, and I think everyone's been feeding off each other. He gets that big hit and we just keep going and everybody keeps scrapping together."

Gibbons got the Dodgers within a run with a long three-run home run into the upper deck in right field, and James Loney followed with a triple and scored on a Russ Mitchell sacrifice fly to tie the game at 4. Figueroa gave up five hits and four runs in 4 2/3 innings.

"My pitch count was down and everything looked like it was smooth sailing, but I ran into a man named Gibbons," Figueroa said. "He hits a three-run home run on a slider in, and I have no idea why I threw a slider in to him. But I did. He deposited it in the upper deck. [Andre] Ethier threw a ball off the end of the bat right before that to keep the inning going. It was a rough fourth inning."

Wallace sparked the Astros to the lead in the fifth by doubling with one out and scoring on a bloop double to center by Castro. Blum, pinch-hitting, followed with a ground-rule double down the left-field line to score Castro at the put the Astros ahead, 6-4. Carlos Lee homered in the eighth.

"Our pitching staff's picked us up so much this year," Wallace said. "We've won games we shouldn't have been in just because we weren't putting up runs, but we've done such a good job of that lately when they come back and tie it up, we have to come back and keep grinding. The way we've swung the bats and the way everyone's coming together, we weren't worried about it. We wanted to get a couple of more. And it's fun to play on a team like that."

Houston also flashed some terrific defense, with second baseman Angel Sanchez (2-for-5) leaping high to rob Brad Ausmus of a hit in the sixth in the long-time Astros catcher's final game at Minute Maid Park. Michael Bourn made a long running catch in left-center in the seventh to take away a Ryan Theriot hit.

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

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