Pittsburgh 8, Houston 3


PITTSBURGH (AP) -- General manager Dave Littlefield and manager
Lloyd McClendon disagree whether the Pittsburgh Pirates are truly
in contention to win their division.

What isn't in dispute is it's early July and the Pirates,
usually long since out of it, still are hanging around in the
crowded NL Central race.

Aramis Ramirez hit one of Pittsburgh's three homers and drove in
four runs to support Jeff D'Amico's four-hitter as the Pirates
finished off a three-game sweep of slumping Houston, winning 8-3

"They've got good hitters and they're hitting the ball right
now," Astros manager Jimy Williams said.

Ramirez hit a three-run drive to chase Wade Miller (5-9), who
allowed 11 hits and seven runs in 5 2-3 innings as the Astros
dropped their ninth in 12 games.

Abraham Nunez got the Pirates going with a two-run double in the
second and Brian Giles and Craig Wilson hit solo homers an inning
later to make it 4-0. The Pirates have won four straight since
Cincinnati rallied in the late innings to beat them on consecutive
nights Tuesday and Wednesday.

The Pirates hadn't swept the Astros in a three-game series since
May 28-30, 1999. The Astros had won 39 of 60 against Pittsburgh
since, including seven of eight this season, before the weekend

Asked to elaborate about the Pirates' sudden turnaround against
his club, Williams said, "Every dog has his day."

Despite winning seven of 10 to close within 6{ games of the NL
Central lead, the Pirates are eight games under .500 and have the
NL's third-worst record. They trail four teams in the NL Central.

That's why, when McClendon says his team is back in it,
Littlefield takes a more cautious approach.

"Being (eight) games under .500 doesn't give me a warm and
fuzzy feeling about being in the race," Littlefield said. "In
certain areas we're performing better than last year ... but
another general manager in another city with a team (eight) games
under .500 wouldn't consider his team in the race.

"Part of my job is to balance the good and the bad and be

Almost everything was good Sunday for the Pirates. They hadn't
had a complete game in 170 games until Jeff Suppan shut out
Colorado on June 29, only to have D'Amico give them their second
complete game in as many Sundays.

D'Amico (6-8) had lost four of five decisions since May 21
before limiting the Astros to one hit in the first five innings and
four overall. He struck out three and walked one while needing just
90 pitches.

"Ninety pitches was remarkable; you just don't see that very
often any more," McClendon said. "You had the feeling early on
this was going to be his day."

In two winning starts against Houston this season, D'Amico has
allowed three runs and eight hits in 16 innings. Lance Berkman hit
a solo homer off D'Amico with two outs in the ninth, his 15th

D'Amico also singled twice for the first two-hit game of his
career. Despite his 6-8 record, he has a 3.87 ERA and hasn't missed
a start despite a history of physical problems.

"I think I'm throwing the ball a little better than the numbers
say," D'Amico said. "I just hope I'll continue to keep us in

Ramirez made two more errors at third base, his 19th and 20th of
the season, but made up for them with his three-run drive in the
sixth, which followed Kenny Lofton's double and Jason Kendall's
single. Ramirez's homer was his eighth and his first since homering
in consecutive games June 20-21.

Ramirez also made an outstanding play in the field, backhanding
Morgan Ensberg's hard-hit ball down the line in the seventh.
Ramirez quickly stepped on third to force a runner, then made a
twisting turn and throw to first to complete the double play.

"You can't think about that (making an error), you've got to
get that out of your mind when you're hitting," Ramirez said.
"We're starting to pick it up. Everybody is swinging the bats well
and we're pitching well."

Game notes
Pittsburgh has won 13 of 20 since dropping six straight.
... Since losing 21 of their first 28 home games, the Pirates have
won 11 of 16 at home. ... The Astros' Geoff Blum has at least one
hit in each of his seven starts since replacing the injured Jeff
Kent at 2B. Blum had four hits in the final two games of the
series. ... Houston is 8-9-1 in its 18 series and has been swept
four times. The Astros have been swept three times in the last
month: June 13-15 at Boston, June 23-25 at Arizona and the
Pittsburgh series. ... Wilson's homer was his fourth and first
since June 1. ... After the game, the Astros optioned reliever
Brandon Puffer to Triple-A New Orleans to free up a roster spot for
Roy Oswalt, who will come off the disabled list to pitch Monday
against Cincinnati.