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Astros extend advantage in NL wild card chase Not having Rocket poses no problem in Houston victory

Roger Clemens couldn't have done it much better.

Ezequiel Astacio, starting in place of the injured ace, allowed four hits in six innings Saturday, and the Houston Astros stretched their lead in the NL wild-card race with an 8-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Astros are now two games ahead of Philadelphia, which lost, 3-2, at Cincinnati and five up on the Florida Marlins, who lost, 6-1, in Atlanta.
Craig Biggio matched his career high with his 24th homer, a solo shot in the first inning, and drove in another run, and Lance Berkman also homered. It was the ninth win in 11 games for Houston.

"I feel happy because I won, but more because the team won and we needed to win," said Astacio, who got his first victory since Aug. 3.

"We've got to take care of our own business. If we don't do that, we could be sitting at home in a few weeks," Biggio said.

Nomar Garciaparra hit a two-run homer for the Cubs, who were officially eliminated with the loss. Carlos Zambrano (14-6) gave up six runs and nine hits in 6 1/3 innings, snapping his career-best, six-game winning streak.

"They're playing hard, we just didn't play good defense," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "You can't give runs away in the major leagues."

Astacio was tapped to start after Clemens was scratched Friday with a sore left hamstring. Clemens, who won his record seventh Cy Young Award last year at 42 and is leading the majors with a 1.89 ERA this season, has been bothered by the injury all month and the Astros decided it would be better to give him some extra rest in case they make the postseason.

Astacio (3-6) hadn't started since Sept. 2 and had pitched only one inning in each of his last four outings, but he looked sharp against Chicago.

In Cincinnati, Reds closer David Weathers -- who yielded five runs and took the loss in the Phillies' epic 11-10 comeback win on Friday -- pitched a perfect ninth as Philadelphia had its three-game winning streak snapped. Philadelphia center fielder Jimmy Rollins singled in the third inning to extend his hitting streak to 29 games, tying the major league season high set by Boston's Johnny Damon from June 10 through July 17.

In Atlanta, Andruw Jones hit his major league-leading 51st home run as the Braves beat the Marlins. Atlanta (88-67) took another step toward its 14th straight division title, lowering its magic number for clinching the NL East to four and eliminating the Marlins from contention in the division. Jeff Francoeur and Rafael Furcal hit two-run homers for Atlanta.


Kendall having fun

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Jason Kendall is playing in his first pennant race after nine years of losing in Pittsburgh. Despite a playoff-starved career and months of frustration with his production at the plate, Kendall keeps contributing big hits.

The Oakland Athletics considered this about as must-win as they get, and their first-year catcher came through.

Kendall hit a tiebreaking single in the eighth inning, and the A's rallied from a three-run deficit for a 7-6 victory over the Texas Rangers.

With the A's struggling to remain in playoff contention, they pulled out a crucial victory by coming back after trailing, 5-2.

"I'm having the time of my life," said Kendall, whose Pirates teams never had a record above .500 after Sept. 1.

After Jay Payton led off the eighth with a double down the left-field line, Dan Johnson followed with a tying RBI double off the wall in right. Hiram Bocachica entered as a pinch-runner, John Wasdin (2-2) intentionally walked Mark Ellis and Kendall's drive got past shortstop Michael Young, allowing Bocachica to score the go-ahead run.

"The guys know what's at stake, and they're playing with urgency," A's manager Ken Macha said.

Eric Chavez added an RBI single in the inning for his third hit of the day to go with his seventh-inning sacrifice fly.

Oakland began the day trailing AL West-leading Los Angeles by four games. The Angels, who play four games at the A's next week, were at home against Tampa Bay on Saturday night in a game that ended too late for this edition.


Around the horn

Jason Grilli pitched seven strong innings in his first Detroit start, and the Tigers hit four home runs in a 7-1 victory over the Mariners that snapped an eight-game losing streak.

Tom Glavine (12-13) carried a shutout into the sixth inning for his 274th career win, David Wright's grand slam capped a five-run first off Livan Hernandez, and the Mets beat the Nationals, 5-2. . . . Sunny Kim (6-2) tossed a three-hitter for his first career shutout as the Rockies blanked the Giants, 6-0. . . . Chad Moeller hit a three-run homer and Brady Clark added a two-run shot during the decisive seven-run second as the Brewers beat the Cardinals, 8-7.

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