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ASTROS CAN’T KEEP TO THE SCRIPT AGAINST THE METS

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With 2 1/2 weeks left in the season, the Houston Astros have settled on a wild-card strategy: Win two of every three games, try to stay close and make a big push in the final week.

On Thursday night, they veered from the script.The Astros lost 4-2 to the New York Mets on a night when they had a chance to gain a half-game on the idle Los Angeles Dodgers.

Houston's loss, combined with Philadelphia's 7-2 victory at Pittsburgh, left the Astros 2 1/2 games back in the wild-card race and just a half-game in front of the Phillies.

"When there were 20 games left in the season, we told ourselves we had to win series, two of three, another two of three," Houston manager Terry Collins said.

"In the last week or so of the season, Los Angeles and Colorado play each other six times. There's no question that if we can stay within a game or two of them, we'll have a chance in that last week. But if we don't win when they're playing each other, it won't matter."

Of Houston's 63 losses, 33 have been by two runs or less.

The Astros, who dropped the final two games of the three-game series at New York, open a three-game set at Montreal tonight. They'll be trying to shake off a horrendous display of clutch hitting against the Mets.

After getting drubbed 10-5 Wednesday night, Houston went just 2-for-15 with runners on base Thursday night. The first three hitters, John Cangelosi, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, were a combined 0-for-11, and Bagwell made the last out in three innings.

"Last night we stunk. Tonight we didn't get any big hits," Collins said. "Everybody makes it sound like you should walk right over teams like the Mets and the Expos, but that's not true. They still want to beat you, especially because you're in the playoff race."

Phillies 7, Pirates 2

At Pittsburgh, seven consecutive Philadelphia hitters reached base in the fifth inning against Paul Wagner (4-15), the losingest pitcher in the league.

Paul Quantrill (11-9) worked 5 1/3 innings, allowing seven hits and two runs and shaking off a straight steal of home in the first inning by Jacob Brumfield.

Reds 8, Padres 1

At Cincinnati, David Wells (5-3) allowed a triple and a double in the first inning, then allowed only two weak singles and a walk in throwing his third complete game since being acquired by the Reds on July 31. He struck out five.

"After the first inning, everything was working," Wells said, "I felt as strong in the eighth inning as I did early."

American League

Yankees 5, Orioles 4

In Baltimore, Andy Pettitte won his fourth straight start as the New York Yankees moved into a first-place tie in the AL wild-card race by beating the Baltimore Orioles.

Bernie Williams homered for the Yankees, whose eighth win in 10 games put them even with idle Seattle in the chase for a playoff spot.

Pettitte (10-8) allowed four runs and seven hits in 8 1/3 innings. The rookie left-hander came out after Rafael Palmeiro's two-run homer, and John Wetteland finished for his 25th save.

Rangers 6, Blue Jays 1

In Toronto, Bobby Witt pitched seven-hit ball and struck out 12 in eight-plus innings for Texas.

It was the fifth straight victory for the Rangers, while the Blue Jays lost their sixth in a row.

Indians 5, Red Sox 3

Orel Hershiser won for the seventh time in eight decisions and Manny Ramirez reached 100 RBIs as Cleveland beat struggling Boston.

The Indians, who rested several regulars, won for the 18th time in 22 games and recorded 90 victories in a season for the first time since they won 93 in 1955.

Royals 5, Athletics 4

Michael Tucker's two-run double off closer Dennis Eckersley in the ninth lifted Kansas City to victory at Oakland. The Royals remined fourth in the wild-card race, two games behind the leaders.

Eckersley (4-5), who has seven blown saves in 35 chances this year, walked pinch-hitter David Howard and Keith Lockhart to begin the ninth.

Brewers 6, Tigers 3

Rookie Steve Sparks struck out a season-high 10 and John Jaha and Fernando Vina homered as Milwaukee defeated Detroit for the Brewers' first win in six games at Tiger Stadium this season.

The Brewers, 5 1/2 games out of the wild-card lead, have won just three of their last 16 games.

Chris Gomez homered for the Tigers, who had their victory string snapped at five.