<
>

Pettitte sharp as Astros regain wild-card lead

HOUSTON (AP) -- With the sense of determination Andy Pettitte had
when he took the mound, the Florida Marlins didn't have a chance
against him.

Pettitte allowed a run over eight innings to win his sixth
straight start, 4-1 Thursday night to put the Houston Astros back
in the NL wild-card lead.

After missing the Astros' postseason run last year because of
elbow surgery, and watching them fall one victory short of their
first NL pennant, Pettitte wants to do his part this year.

"It was a big series obviously. All the starts are big right
now," Pettitte said. "I want to win, I want to try to get it done
after last year."

He also had his good friend Roger Clemens on his mind. And
Clemens, surprisingly, was there to watch him pitch.

The night before, the Rocket beat the Marlins, starting on the
day his mother passed away. That ended a three-game losing streak
for the Astros, including the first two games against the Marlins.

The Astros (78-68) took a half-game lead over Florida and
Philadelphia, which lost to Atlanta, in the wild-card race. Houston
and Florida split their four-game series, the last games against
each other this season.

Pettitte (16-9) scattered five hits and struck out five. Aside
from Miguel Cabrera's 32nd homer leading off the seventh, the
left-hander allowed five baserunners, three of whom were erased by
double-play grounders.

"Two really brilliant performances," Astros manager Phil
Garner said.

"Against Clemens and Pettitte, there's no way you can expect to
sweep a series," Marlins manager Jack McKeon said. "Maybe the
Cardinals can, but nobody else."

Florida went 6-5 on its road trip and goes home for a series
against the Phillies in the same spot it left -- a half-game back in
the wild-card race. Houston remains home to play Milwaukee.

"It would have been nice to get a little bit of separation, but
we ran into two of the best pitchers in the big leagues," Marlins
left fielder Jeff Conine said. "It was usual Pettitte. He showed
us different looks in every at-bat."

Pettitte is 13-2 with a 1.50 ERA since June 20 -- the most wins
and best ERA in the major leagues during that span.

Florida rookie Jason Vargas (5-4) went five innings and lost his
third straight decision over four starts. He gave up four hits,
including the two homers, with four strikeouts and two walks.

"I felt like this was the best I've thrown in a long time,"
Vargas said. "I just got two balls up, and I got caught with it."

Brad Lidge threw 12 of 15 pitches for strikes in the ninth, when
he struck out the top three hitters in the Marlins lineup for his
37th save in 40 chances.

After Brad Ausmus led off the fifth with his third home run,
Pettitte followed with a deep fly ball of his own -- that was caught
by center fielder Juan Pierre well short of the wall. Craig Biggio
then hit his 21st homer into the left-field stands near where
Ausmus' ball had landed for a 3-0 lead.

An inning later, Florida intentionally walked Ausmus with two
outs and a runner on to get Pettitte to the plate. He hit another
fly to center, shaking his arms in frustration as he jogged toward
first base.

"It'd be nice to get a hit every once in a while," Pettitte
said. "But I guess they don't pay me to do that."

Houston went ahead to stay with a run in the third inning, when
Pettitte hustled to beat out a potential double play before
shortstop Damion Easley's fielding error on Biggio's grounder. Adam
Everett, who had a leadoff single before a stolen base, scored to
put the Astros up 1-0.

The Astros extended their lead to 4-1 in the seventh when Biggio
had a leadoff single, and scored on a single by Jose Vizcaino. Jim
Mecir then relieved Ismael Valdez, getting out of the bases-loaded
jam with a popout and a strikeout.

Game notes
Everett and LF Charles Gipson both went hard to the ground
after colliding on a popup in foul territory. Gipson, making his
first start in the field, ended up making the catch even though
Everett slammed into him about the same time the ball came down.
Both were tended to for several minutes, but stayed in the game.
... The Marlins have hit into 126 double plays, 16 short of the
most in team history. They also hit into three double plays
Wednesday.