Oswalt leaves game with strained groin


PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The Pittsburgh Pirates are largely responsible
for getting the Houston Astros back into the NL Central race. Now
it's up to the Astros to try to keep themselves in it.

Richard Hidalgo drove in two runs with a home run and double and
the Astros beat the Pirates for the seventh time in 11 days,
winning 6-2 Thursday.

Hidalgo had a run-scoring double in a two-run fourth inning and
a go-ahead homer in the sixth, a drive deep down the left-field
line that deflected off an upper deck walkway.

Roy Oswalt (3-4) limited the Pirates to two runs in six innings
and helped himself with a double in the seventh, scoring on Craig
Biggio's double. Biggio also had two RBI as the Astros won for
their third time in the four-game series.

With their bullpen repeatedly shutting down the Pirates from the
seventh inning on, the Astros won seven of eight from Pittsburgh
from May 5-15, including a four-game sweep last week.

Houston outscored Pittsburgh 13-2 in the eighth and ninth
innings in the series. The Astros have a 59-17 edge in those
innings this season, including a 32-8 advantage in the ninth.

"We've got a good offense over here," Hidalgo said. "With the
relief pitching we've got, we've got a good chance of winning if we
can just keep the game close until then."

Ricky Stone followed Oswalt with a scoreless seventh, Octavio
Dotel pitched the eighth and Billy Wagner finished. The Astros'
bullpen surrendered only two runs in 14 innings in the series and
leads the NL with 155 1-3 innings pitched.

"Once you get into their bullpen, there's a good chance the
game is over with," the Pirates' Matt Stairs said. "What we've
got to do is get some runs early, and not make every at-bat a
crucial situation ... so we can start laughing at them the way
they're laughing at us."

The only discouraging news for the Astros: they don't meet the
Pirates again until July 4. After a weekend series against the
Phillies, they begin a two-week stretch against the division rival
Cubs and Cardinals.

They just hope they have their top pitcher for those key games.
Oswalt didn't come out to pitch the seventh after straining his
right groin running the bases.

The Astros probably won't know until Friday at the earliest if
Oswalt can start Wednesday against St. Louis.

"We'll see," Oswalt said. "Hopefully, it won't bother me."

The Astros rallied from a 2-0 deficit a night after Pirates
manager Lloyd McClendon claimed his team was ready to make a major
push in the NL Central. The Pirates have lost 11 of 13 and won only
twice on the seven-game homestand against Arizona and Houston.

The Pirates, losers of 10 of their last 12 at PNC Park, gave
Kris Benson (4-5) a 2-0 lead in the third on Kenny Lofton's leadoff
single, a walk, Randall Simon's run-scoring groundout and Matt
Stairs' RBI single. But they missed out on a potentially bigger
inning when Stairs was thrown out easily as the plate as he tried
to score on Craig Wilson's two-out double to left.

The Astros, who have won 11 of 12 from the Pirates since
mid-July a season ago, immediately tied it on consecutive RBI
doubles in the fourth by Hidalgo and Jose Vizcaino. Hidalgo had six
RBIs and Vizcaino had a pair of three-hit games in the series'
final three games.

McClendon wasn't happy Benson gave the runs back, saying it's
time for him to start becoming the dominating pitcher he has long
expected to be. The No. 1 pick in the 1996 amateur draft, Benson
has a 34-37 career record.

"When you get a couple of runs, you've got to go back out and
go 1-2-3 in the next inning," McClendon said. "You've just gotten
two runs off one of the best pitchers in the league, you can't give
those runs back.

"You've got your No. 1 starter against their No. 1 starter.
Sometimes you've got to step up, execute, make your pitches.
Sometimes you've got to win a game 2-0."

Benson tried to diplomatically sidestep the criticism, saying,
"Giving up two runs there is definitely not what I wanted to do."

Benson allowed three runs and six hits in six innings. He is 2-7
against the Astros and 0-2 this season, including an 8-1 loss in
Houston to Wade Miller on May 5.

Oswalt became the first Astros starting pitcher to win since
that game. The Astros' bullpen had earned each of their previous
six victories.

Houston added two runs in the ninth against reliever Brian
Meadows on Brad Ausmus' double, Biggio's two-out RBI single and
Geoff Blum's double.

Game notes
Hidalgo's homer was his sixth. He had a tiebreaking,
three-run double in the ninth as Houston won 6-3 Tuesday night. ...
Lofton's two hits extended his hitting streak to 15 games
(25-for-60, .417). ... Oswalt is 5-2 against Pittsburgh. ... Jeff
Bagwell went 0-for-5 and hasn't had an RBI since May 8, against the