Thursday, September 06, 2001

Astros open biggest lead in NL Central

AP Sports Writer

        Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou watched from the bench as the Houston Astros emerged from their offensive slump and opened their biggest lead of the season. Imagine what they could do if their top hitters get in the swing, too.

        Vinny Castilla drove in six runs in a revamped lineup Wednesday night, leading the Astros to a 10-3 victory over the Reds that put them in control of the NL Central.

        The Astros opened a five-game lead on the Cubs, who blew a ninth-inning lead and lost to Florida 7-6. The division's top two teams play seven times in the last two weeks to decide the title.

        “Going into it, we're right where we want to be — everybody's got to catch us,” said Dave Mlicki (5-1), who pitched seven innings and had a hit in the mix-and-match offense.

        The Astros have made a remarkable turnaround from June 17, when they trailed by eight games and had only a break-even record. They whittled away at the deficit, then surged to their lead by winning 15 of their last 19 games.

        The spurt has come with misgivings. The Astros have depended too much on their impeccable pitching to make up for their undependable hitting.

        After the Astros managed only 15 singles and three extra-base hits while splitting the first two games in Cincinnati, manager Larry Dierker decided to retool his lineup for a day.

        Bagwell sat out for the first time this season and Alou got a day's respite from his deep slump. Alou is in a 2-for-18 slide that's dropped his average to .342, second in the NL.

        Castilla finished his impressive series by hitting a three-run homer and an RBI double off Chris Reitsma (7-14), then a two-run double off Jim Brower. He went 8-for-13 in the series with five singles, two doubles, a homer and seven RBIs.

        “Last night, he hit a couple of fastballs in,” Reitsma said. “The plan was to do as much as we could to mix up his rhythm, but he just hit my mistakes.”

        Every Astros starter either had a hit, drove in a run or scored one. Eight of Houston's 13 hits went for extra bases as the Astros reached double-digits in runs for the first time since Aug. 19.

        “We actually hit the ball a little harder tonight,” Dierker said. “Really, it was more Vinny's continued barrage. When he gets going, he sprays them all over the park.”

        Castilla, who started the season with lowly Tampa Bay, is enjoying the chance to lead a contender in September.

        “Coming from the bottom to the top, that's a big difference,” Castilla said. “I'm having a lot of fun. Every time we go out, we have a chance to win.”

        Mlicki went through a similar attitude adjustment when the Astros got him from Detroit on June 23. He went into the rotation in mid-July and has gone 4-1 in 10 starts.

        “Everybody here is used to winning, and it kind of rubs off on you,” Mlicki said.

        The pitching staff led the majors with a 2.86 ERA in August and has been nearly as tough so far in September, giving the Astros a sense they can win even with Bagwell and Alou on the bench.

        “It's confidence,” Dierker said. “When you have good pitching, you have confidence.”

        Astros Notes: Castilla's six RBIs matched his career high. ... The Astros had seven doubles, matching their season high. ... Mlicki singled in the second inning, only his second hit in 20 at-bats this season.


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