The Astros went deep against Carlos Zambrano on two occasions Wednesday, breaking through against him for the first time in two years while cruising to an 8-2 victory and a sweep of the second-place Cubs in the three-game series at Minute Maid Park.
Coupled with the Brewers' early loss, Houston suddenly finds itself just eight games out of first place in the loss column with nine games remaining against Milwaukee. Six of those -- including three this weekend -- are at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros are now 31-25 on the season.
"We're getting better timely hitting," Garner said of his team's recent resurgence. "[The sweep] is a step. We hope that it gives us momentum with Milwaukee coming in here, but it's just a step. The sweep was important. We've got to continue our march to .500, and that's the key for us."
Going into the game, Zambrano (14-8) was 4-0 with a 0.89 ERA since the All-Star break, including 6 2/3 shutout innings against Houston this past month. In his last six starts against the Astros, he had allowed just two earned runs in 45 2/3 innings, with none in his last 22 1/3 innings. But that didn't stop the surging Astros from torching him in the middle innings.
Craig Biggio smacked Zambrano's inside fastball to the Crawford Boxes with one out in the third, giving the Astros the game's first run. Four batters later, Luke Scott lined a triple to deep right-center, scoring Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee to give the Astros a commanding 3-0 lead with ace Roy Oswalt on the mound.
"I thought that was the swing of the game," Berkman said of Scott's triple. "When you can open up a three-run lead like that at a critical time in the game, you're feeling really good about your chances [with Oswalt pitching]."
Oswalt (12-6) was magnificent for a fourth consecutive start, tossing six shutout innings with four strikeouts. He got in a bit of trouble when the Cubs loaded the bases with one out in the fourth, but he responded with a strikeout of Zambrano and then induced a popout to second from Ryan Theriot to leave them loaded.
Oswalt has allowed just two earned runs in his last 25 1/3 innings.
"I was able to throw some quality pitches when I needed it," Oswalt said. "When [Zambrano] is on the hill, you can't give up a lot of runs. Early on, I was trying not to give up anything and not let anyone in scoring position in case a bloop hit gets in.
|"We hope that it gives us momentum with Milwaukee coming in here, but it's just a step. The sweep was important. We've got to continue our march to .500, and that's the key for us."|
|-- Phil Garner|
Berkman added to the barrage of extra-base hits with a massive solo homer of his own in the fifth, sailing it 438 feet to the camera deck just to the right of the Conoco pump. The blast was the eighth-longest by an Astros player in Minute Maid Park history.
Mike Lamb put things completely out of reach in the sixth, flaring a two-out double down the left-field line to score Eric Bruntlett and Orlando Palmeiro, upping the lead to 6-0. Zambrano was chased from the game after just 5 2/3 innings, surrendering eight hits and seven runs, all earned.
"He didn't have his best stuff," Brad Ausmus said of Zambrano. "Obviously, if he did have his best stuff, we wouldn't have scored that. I think he was a little off, for whatever reason. We haven't been fortunate to catch him on an off start over the past two years, but today we caught him on a bad day."
"I think we took advantage of some mistakes that [Zambrano] made," Berkman said. "I think it's different facing him [in Houston], too. We're all comfortable in this environment, whereas Wrigley Field, in my opinion, is the worst field in the big leagues. I'm never comfortable facing him there, and it's a lot easier trying to hit him here at home."
Scott worked a bases-loaded walk in the sixth to cap that inning, while Ausmus drilled his third homer of the season against Michael Wuertz in the seventh, making it 8-1.
In addition to the nine games against division-leading Milwaukee, the Astros also have six games remaining against the second-place Cubs, whom they trail by 7 1/2 games. But even with the sweep and the remaining head-to-head matchups, the Astros know they still have quite a mountain to climb.
"It doesn't tell us anything yet," Ausmus said of the sweep. "Three wins do not make up for the hole that we dug. You like to win inside the division, especially when it's against teams above you in the standings. But we've got a lot of undigging to do."
Ben DuBose is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.