But when the Astros needed offensive contributions, players stepped up from the bench to deliver. Houston used every position player at its disposal Sunday afternoon against the Mets, and with the exception of Lance Berkman, each reserve came away with a hit.
A solo shot from backup catcher Brad Ausmus was the difference-maker in a 6-4 Astros win at Shea Stadium. Just two batters later, Darin Erstad -- filling in at first base -- notched his third homer for an insurance run.
"It was a tremendous team effort, everybody contributed," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "We played them all today, and they all contributed. That's what we have to do to get wins. Everybody has to chip in and do their part, and today all our extra men played, and they all contributed in a big way."
Ausmus, who entered in the eighth inning behind the plate, led off the 10th against New York reliever Pedro Feliciano. After falling behind, 1-2, in the count, Ausmus thought the next pitch might hit him, but was disappointed when the breaking ball broke behind him and kept him off the bases.
But when a second curveball came across the plate, Ausmus jumped on it to slug the game-winner -- just his second home run of the season.
"Feliciano's tough," Ausmus said. "He's pitched very well. It was just the case of a blind squirrel finding an acorn."
The Astros connected on just four hits off Mets starter Oliver Perez. But when Perez left after 6 1/3 innings, Houston took immediate advantage of New York's bullpen. Geoff Blum and David Newhan produced hits off reliever Aaron Heilman on consecutive pinch-hit at-bats to bring home Hunter Pence, tying the game for the second time. But Fernando Tatis threw Blum out at the plate to keep the Astros from taking the lead.
Houston erased two deficits and picked up the win despite two home runs from New York slugger Carlos Beltran. Pence knocked in a two-run homer of his own to tie the game in the fourth inning, and Astros starter Randy Wolf bounced back after hitting trouble spots early on. He limited the damage from a bases-loaded situation in the third inning, but he couldn't escape the jam before he walked Tatis to plate a run. But Wolf seemed to fall into a rhythm as the game continued, and he retired nine of the final 11 batters he faced.
"He battled his butt off," reliever Chris Sampson said. "He kept us right there in the middle of the game and gave us a chance to win. That's all you can ask for in your starter, and it's our job to come in and pick him up."
Houston's bullpen then came with fresh arms. After starters Roy Oswalt and Brandon Backe threw eight and seven innings, respectively, in the first two games of the series, Cooper had plenty of relievers to choose from to take the ball from Wolf.
With the game tied, Sampson got the call in the seventh inning. He worked quickly, throwing just nine pitches to come away with three groundouts from the top of the Mets' lineup. It was more of the same when he returned in the eighth, as Sampson completed his two innings without allowing baserunner.
LaTroy Hawkins and Jose Valverde picked up where Sampson left off, each contributing a scoreless inning.
"They have been huge, really this entire second half," Cooper said. "The bullpen has pitched awfully well, and I think the key was having Sampson settle into that middle role, really a long role, and then having added Hawkins to the mix really kind of settled the whole thing."
As the relievers held the score close and quieted New York's lineup, Houston's offense continued the fight back, and each player Cooper called off the bench performed the role he needed to.
"Can't say enough about the bench," Cooper said. "Those guys continue to play well. Every time you call one's name, they go up and they do it."
It was a somewhat ironic twist that Berkman -- out of the starting lineup because of pain in his left hamstring -- was the only reserve player not to record a hit. He is batting .330 with 26 home runs and 93 RBIs. But Berkman knows the importance of a team's bench and the key factor it plays in any club's success.
"You can't win without contributions from all 25 players -- it's just impossible to over the course of 162 games," Berkman said. "That's one thing that long, grueling schedule will bring to light -- is who has the best 25 guys, not who has the best seven or eight guys. You've got to use everybody, and today we did."
Samantha Newman is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.