Astros inch closer to Dodgers in wild-card race

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Houston Astros are convinced that
catching St. Louis for first place in the NL Central will be less
of a chore than overtaking Los Angeles and San Francisco for the
wild card.

"The Dodgers will be the toughest to catch because they're
farther in front of us than the Cardinals -- and we get a chance to
play the Cardinals seven more times,'' said Jeff Bagwell, whose
home run helped beat the Dodgers 6-1 on Saturday.

"But we have to cut the lead down before we play the Cardinals.
We can't go in there and try to win seven straight games because
it's probably not going to happen.''

Mark Loretta went 4-for-5 and Gregg Zaun had a pair of two-out
RBI singles, helping the Astros inch within 7&3189; games of Los Angeles
and remain 5½ of the Cardinals.

The Dodgers have a two-game edge on the Giants for the wild card
and trail West-leading Arizona by 4½ games, following the
Diamondbacks' 4-3 loss at San Francisco.

Rookie Carlos Hernandez (7-5) allowed one run and four hits in
seven innings, matching his longest outing in 23 career starts and
sending the Dodgers to their sixth loss in 22 games. It made up for
a hard-luck 2-1 loss last Sunday in which he struck out nine

"You've got to give Hernandez credit. He threw a great game
against us in Houston and he threw a great game today,'' Dodgers
first baseman Eric Karros said. "Every once in a while, we're
going to run into some good pitching outside of Curt Schilling and
Randy Johnson. And today we did.''

Hernandez, making his fifth start after spending more than six
weeks on the disabled list with shoulder soreness, struck out four
and walked three.

"I don't really want to think about my shoulder anymore,''
Hernandez said. "I just want to put the injury behind me and
concentrate on doing my job to help the team. I want to have fun
every time I go out there.''

Omar Daal (11-7) lost for the first time in five decisions,
allowing four runs and nine hits over 4 2/3 innings.

The Astros took a 2-1 lead with two runs in the fourth. Bagwell
doubled and scored on a single by Loretta. Zaun singled home the
second run after a two-out single by rookie Jason Lane.

Bagwell made it 4-1 in the fifth with a two-run homer just
inside the left-field pole. It was Bagwell's 27th homer and 376th
of his career, tying Hall of Famer Carlton Fisk for 49th place
all-time and putting him within one of Norm Cash's total.

Bagwell is hitting .290 with 18 homers and 62 RBI in 98 games
since being moved from third to cleanup in the order on May 24.
Before that, he had not batted in the fourth spot since Sept. 27,

"It doesn't make a difference to me,'' Bagwell said. "I mean,
it's not like they change how they pitch to me, depending on where
I hit in the lineup. But I think it fits our lineup better this way
because the other team prefers a left-hander to face Lance.''

Craig Biggio added a sacrifice fly in the sixth and Zaun capped
the scoring with an RBI single in the seventh. The last two runs
were charged to Giovanni Carrara.

Brian Jordan opened the scoring in the first inning with an RBI
single after a broken-bat bloop single by Paul Lo Duca and a
two-out walk to Adrian Beltre. A walk to Karros loaded the bases,
but Mark Grudzielanek popped out on the next pitch.

"Sometimes, Carlos gets into trouble by throwing too many
pitches in the first inning,'' Bagwell said. "But he settled down
after that, started throwing strikes and got a lot of ground balls.
He pitched a great game, and we really needed that.''

The Dodgers did not get another hit until the fifth, when
pinch-hitter Jolbert Cabrera led off with a double. But he was
stranded there as Marquis Grissom, Lo Duca and Shawn Green all
grounded out.

Game notes
Loretta's four hits equaled his total in his previous five
games with the Astros. He has had two five-hit games during his
eight-year career, both with the Brewers, who traded him to Houston
on Aug. 31. ... Astros OF Orlando Merced, who strained his left
hamstring running out a double-play grounder Friday, did not play
after getting treatment. ... Daal is 1-7 with a 7.62 ERA in eight
career starts against Houston. ... Dodgers INF Dave Hansen took his
role as utilityman to another level when he appeared on the field
about three hours before game time and helped groundskeepers
prepare the diamond for optional batting practice. ... The Dodgers
changed the starting time of Sunday's game from 1:10 p.m. to 4:10
p.m. locally to accommodate the L.A. Triathlon, which runs through
the Elysian Park area surrounding Dodger Stadium.