<
>

Houston stumbles down stretch

HOUSTON (AP) -- The Houston Astros left Minute Maid Park on
Saturday still in the NL Central race, at least mathematically. A
few hours later, their dreams for a division title disappeared.

The Astros lost to last-place Milwaukee for the second straight
day, falling 5-2 Saturday. Houston began the day a half-game behind
Chicago, which swept Pittsburgh in a doubleheader and won its first
division title since 1989.

"This whole week has been a playoff atmosphere because every
game, every pitch has meant something," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus
said after Houston lost. "You're a little drained at the end of
each game, but certainly we've been ready at the start. We just
didn't end up on top the last two games."

The loss sent the Astros wondering what went wrong down the
stretch.

"I guess if I knew what happened, we'd have done something to
change it," Jeff Kent said. "The Cubbies have played well lately
and we haven't. We've been just running on empty."

Leading 2-1 to start the sixth, the Brewers got five straight
hits off Ron Villone (6-6) and Brad Lidge in a three-run inning
that put Milwaukee in control.

Wes Helms hit a two-out home run, his 23rd. After consecutive
singles by Eddie Perez, Royce Clayton and Wes Obermueller (2-5),
Scott Podsednik doubled off the left-field wall and two more runs
scored for a 5-1 lead.

Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker saw it coming.

"I guess it was two days ago I sensed that we were trying to
force something out there," Hunsicker said. "We were trying to
make things happen and the guys were too tight. They were trying
too hard, making forced errors."

Podsednik, who drove in three runs, had an RBI triple and Bill
Hall hit an RBI single in the third. All five Milwaukee runs came
with two outs.

Obermueller snapped a five-game losing streak in his last start
Sept. 21 against Arizona. He pitched a career-high eight innings
against the Astros and allowed 10 hits and two earned runs, walking
none.

"He pitched the game of his life," Milwaukee manager Ned Yost
said. "After the first inning he had some jitters. I told Wes,
`Look the pressure's not on you, it's on them. Settle down and stay
on the attack and let the pressure that's on them work to your
advantage.' He did. He got in a great groove after that."

Villone, 0-4 in his last six starts, retired the first seven
batters until Royce Clayton doubled in the third. Podsednik then
tripled and Hall singled for a 2-1 lead.

"The most frustrating thing for us is just getting so close and
not being able to grab it, not being able to take the bull by the
horns," Villone said.

Houston appeared ready to jump on the Brewers in the first
inning but ended up with just one run off Obermueller.

Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensberg opened with line-drive singles.
Jeff Bagwell grounded into a force play and Kent hit an RBI single.

After Lance Berkman reached on first baseman Richie Sexson's
throwing error, Richard Hidalgo -- hitting .176 for the homestand --
hit into a double play to end the inning.

Ensberg hit his 25th homer in the seventh, tying Doug Rader for
the most homers hit by an Astros third baseman in a season.

Villone pitched 5 2-3 innings. He allowed eight hits, five
earned runs and he walked two and struck out six.

Billy Wagner, who pitched Houston's final inning, didn't think
the Astros are drained.

"We've played like Game 7 from day one," Wagner said. "We
battled day in and day out. Fatigue has got to be in there, but
that's an excuse to use fatigue. Sometimes, it just goes that
way."

Game notes
Kent needs one double to become the fifth player in major
league history to hit 40 doubles in five consecutive seasons. Wade
Boggs had 40 or more doubles seven straight years. ... Jeriome
Robertson (15-9) would be the first rookie in franchise history to
lead the Astros in wins. Wade Miller, 14-13, pitches on Sunday. ...
Lidge made his 78th appearance tying the NL record for appearances
in a season, set last season by teammate Ricky Stone.