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Fans let Beltran hear it in return to Houston

HOUSTON (AP) -- Considering how the Houston Astros have clawed
back since they were 15 games under .500, it's only fitting they
moved to the top of the NL wild-card race with a tense, dramatic
win.

The fact that it came in Carlos Beltran's return to Houston only
made it better for their revenge-minded fans.

Brad Ausmus drove in the tying run off Pedro Martinez with a
squeeze bunt in the seventh inning, then won it with a single to
right-center field with one out in the bottom of the ninth, sending
Houston past the New York Mets 3-2 on Thursday night.

With their fifth straight win and 11th in 12 games, the Astros
tied Washington (55-47) for the wild-card lead, an amazing
achievement for a club that was 15-30 on May 24.

"We certainly take pride that we've come all the way back,"
Ausmus said. "But there's still a lot of baseball to be played."

True, which is why Houston fans will remember this game not for
the comeback win and not for what it meant in the standings, but
for the way they were able to vent their anger toward Beltran.

Beltran was beloved after being acquired last June and moved
into the Nolan Ryan-Earl Campbell stratosphere of adoration among
Houstonians after hitting eight homers in 12 playoff games. They
turned on him because of his decision to take a $119 million,
seven-year deal with the Mets instead of accepting a relatively
close offer from Houston. Beltran said a full no-trade guarantee
swayed him.

So a sellout crowd of 43,552, the second-biggest of the season
and fourth-largest in the 6-year history of Minute Maid Park, let
out full-throated boos every time they heard his name, starting
from the announcement of lineups 15 minutes before the game. He
continued to hear the jeers during each at-bat and every time the
ball was hit to him in center field.

The result: He went 0-for-4, hitting three infield grounders and
a routine fly ball to center, and he later admitted the negative
reception bothered him.

"I tried to block it out, but I was too close. I couldn't block
it out," he said. "But to be honest, I don't care at all. They
can boo me. I just want to concentrate on my game. It's just hard
to block all that noise out."

Houston also got a boost from rookie starter Ezequiel Astacio,
who after a rocky start ended up matching Martinez for much of the
game.

The Mets loaded the bases with no outs in the top of the first,
getting a hit and a walk and Beltran reaching on an error. But they
got only one run on a sacrifice fly. Astacio didn't allow anyone
past second base the rest of his six innings.

"The first inning was huge," New York manager Willie Randolph
said. "You can't let a young kid off the ropes like that. You need
to get two or three runs in that situation."

Martinez was brilliant early, giving up only one hit until Adam
Everett homered with two outs in the fifth, tying it at 1.

New York regained the lead when Miguel Cairo homered off
reliever Chad Qualls in the seventh -- ending a run of 14 scoreless
innings by the Astros bullpen -- but Martinez couldn't protect it.
He allowed a leadoff walk that turned into the tying run when
Ausmus put down his second RBI squeeze in as many games.

Houston wasted a chance to score again off Martinez in the
eighth, then capitalized in the ninth off Roberto Hernandez (5-4).
Orlando Palmeiro led off with a single, moved to second on a
sacrifice by Everett and scored on Ausmus' liner into the gap.

Dan Wheeler (1-2) pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings for the win,
his first since last July. It gave New York its third loss in four
games this road trip after having won seven of its previous eight
overall.

"They were just better than us tonight," Martinez said. "This
is a team that is playing really well. They don't let go at all.
They never let go tonight."

Martinez, who had won five of his last six starts, allowed two
runs and four hits in eight innings. He added eight strikeouts to
his NL-leading total and upped his career count to 2,808, passing
Cy Young (2,803) for 16th all-time. Astacio allowed one run and four hits over six innings. He
struck out five and walked three in his first start in Brandon
Backe's rotation spot. Backe went on the disabled list before the
game with a strained muscle on his left side that will force him
out for at least two weeks and possibly longer.

Game notes
David Wright of the Mets singled in the eighth, upping his
hitting streak to a career-best 15 games. ... With the Astros
stealing three bases and the Mets none, Houston passed New York for
the NL lead with 84. ... Backe was behind home plate to catch the
ceremonial opening pitch -- from his dad, Harold. The ball was low
and outside and got past the younger Backe. Once the ball was
recovered, he autographed it. ... Before the game, more than 40
people stood on the field in front of the Mets' dugout and were
sworn into the Marines.