Red-hot Astros hand the ball to their ace

Somewhere in his decision-making data bank, Astros manager Cecil Cooper toyed with the idea of holding out Roy Oswalt one extra day, allowing him to start the showdown series against the Cubs on Friday.

To any outsider, it was a tactical slam dunk: give the ball to your most trusted pitching weapon, fire the first shot of the weekend that just might decide the wild card, if not the National League Central itself.

But Cooper isn't looking that far ahead, not even 24 hours. Instead, he's decided to start Oswalt against the Pirates on Thursday night in his normal turn in the rotation.

The reason? Pure, level-headed, pennant-race logic.

"A win's a win. If we can get one against the Pirates, we'll get one against the Pirates. It doesn't matter," Cooper told reporters Wednesday night. "We'll worry about Friday when Friday gets here. You just have to win every game we can win."

Cooper can afford to pick and choose his battles, since almost every decision he's made lately has paid a dividend. The Astros have won five straight and 13 of their past 14. They are within four games of the wild-card-leading Brewers, with every belief that this miracle finish is not only possible, but probable.

In large part, they can thank Oswalt, who's leading the charge. The right-hander takes a streak of 23 1/3 straight scoreless innings into Thursday night's contest, the longest such streak by an Astros pitcher since Roger Clemens' 24 in 2005.

Oswalt has plenty of muscle memory; he's been through pennant races before. But what's so impressive about the Astros' second-half surge is that so few of them are experienced in such matters. On the current roster, only four players were around for all three of the Astros' postseason appearances in the new millennium (2004, 2005, 2006): Brad Ausmus, Brandon Backe, Lance Berkman and Oswalt.

In the meantime, the Astros keep roaring through the race's final games. They steamrolled the Pirates 7-4 on Wednesday night, fueled by Miguel Tejada's grand slam in the sixth inning.

It was Tejada's 11th career grand slam and his first for the Astros. Couldn't have come at a better time, he said.

"I think the reason we're winning is because we have confidence in everybody," Tejada said. "Right now, we think we can beat everybody."

The Astros' only regret? As much as they're preparing for the weekend with the Cubs, their real target is the Brewers -- whom they won't see again in the regular season. But the work ahead is obvious enough.

All the Astros have to do is keep bucking the odds, winning like crazy when logic says it's just that. Crazy.

Brewers get a big win

You think the Brewers weren't breathing a sigh of relief after Wednesday's dramatic 4-3 win over the Reds? Manager Ned Yost told reporters, "This is horribly fun" -- which is what every manager says when he's living and dying pitch by pitch.

Somehow, the Brewers are keeping Yost sane, if only barely, as they hang onto that four-game lead in the wild-card race. The victory over Cincinnati was significant in that it proved, again, the Brewers are unafraid of pressure: They are 28-14 in one-run games, the best mark in the big leagues.

Mike Cameron was the hero Wednesday, lashing an eighth-inning single that put the finishing touches on a come-from-behind win; the Brewers had been down 3-1 with nine outs to go. They now embark on a critical 10-game road trip, starting with Thursday night's key series opener against the Phillies.

"It's going to be a big series," Cameron told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Emotions are going to be high, especially there [among Philadelphia fans]. Some guys are playing for pennies. Some guys are playing for gold."

Unusual weekend awaits in New York

Speaking of upcoming series and homestands, how's this for an oddity: The Yankees and the Mets both will be home this weekend, but only one of the teams is involved in a race. For the first time since 1988, the Mets are poised for a postseason appearance without the Yankees joining them.

The crash-and-burn summer has been a particular embarrassment to the Yankees' hierarchy, which counted heavily on its young players to carry them through a season without Johan Santana.

But nothing worked out: Ian Kennedy and Phil Hughes combined for zero wins, Chien-Ming Wang and Joba Chamberlain got hurt and no one expected the Rays to be a sustained threat.

As a result, the Yankees, who host Tampa Bay over the weekend, will be playing meaningless 11th-hour baseball for the first time since Oct. 3, 1993. David Wells, then with the Tigers, lost to the Yankees 2-1 in a game that took just two hours and 20 minutes.

It will be interesting to see how much (or little) effort the Yankees expend in their final 16 games. Andy Pettitte, who is 1-6 with a 6.50 ERA in his past nine starts, said, "If guys think we're out of the playoffs, I would hope they'd play for some pride."

Across town, the Mets take on the Braves at Shea Stadium, convinced they're about to cross the bridge to October with a 3½-game lead over the Phillies with 17 to go. Of course, that's no guarantee of a berth, considering the Mets blew a seven-game lead with 17 to go in 2007. But Carlos Delgado, who is averaging a home run every 11 at-bats since the All-Star break, said, "We are a different team this year. No one thinks that's going to happen to us again."

Strength in numbers

Fitting, wasn't it, that the Angels clinched the American League West on Wednesday, the same day they beat the Yankees 4-2. They are 7-3 against the Bombers this season and are the only team to have a winning record against New York since 2000.

The Angels dominated the division all season and their Sept. 10 clinch date is the earliest in AL West history dating back to 1969. The major league record, however, still belongs to the Yankees, who claimed the AL East title on Sept. 4, 1998, beating by five days the previous record held by the 1906 Cubs.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.