Roy Oswalt has overcome a slow start on his way to another outstanding season. His Houston Astros have followed a similar path, but their late surge may not be enough.
The playoff-hopeful Astros will have one of the game's hottest pitchers on the mound Thursday night when they seek a sixth straight win and a four-game sweep of the Pittsburgh Pirates.A 2-1 loss to Cincinnati on Aug. 26 left the Astros with a 66-66 record and no chance of reaching the playoffs without a remarkable finish. While it still has ground to make up with little season left, Houston is a legitimate contender now that a 13-1 stretch has pulled it within four games of wild card-leading Milwaukee.The Astros (79-67), a major league-best 35-16 since the All-Star break, are 12 games over .500 for the first time since finishing the 2005 season 89-73.Houston opens a three-game series Friday against the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs before playing its final nine contests against Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Atlanta -- all teams well below .500.Oswalt (14-9, 3.72 ERA) is among the biggest reasons why the Astros are playing meaningful games this month.The Houston ace is 8-1 with a 2.12 ERA in his last 11 starts, his best of the season coming Saturday when he threw a one-hitter in a 2-0 victory at Colorado. It was the third time in Coors Field history that a pitcher threw a one-hitter or better there."He was as good as I've seen pitch in this ballpark since I've been here in '97," Rockies manager Clint Hurdle said. "It was the most complete outing I've witnessed, including our pitchers."It was the fifth career shutout for Oswalt, who has thrown 23 1-3 scoreless innings, the longest streak by a Houston pitcher since Roger Clemens tossed 24 from April 8-29, 2005.Oswalt had won five straight decisions against the Pirates before he gave up four runs and nine hits over six innings in a 5-2 loss at PNC Park on June 4. He is 11-6 with a 2.59 ERA in 22 starts versus Pittsburgh.Miguel Tejada's grand slam broke open a close game in the sixth inning and lifted the Astros to a 7-4 victory on Wednesday night."I try to be the most relaxed I can be because I know I have the hottest player in baseball behind me -- Lance (Berkman)," Tejada said. "I have so much confidence in Lance right now, that I'm not looking for a walk or a base hit."That's why I'm taking pitches. Right now, I want him to come to the plate with the bases loaded. I was just trying to get one (run in)."The Pirates (60-85) have lost five straight and 16 of their last 19 games.For the first time in three months, Pittsburgh's Zach Duke (5-13, 4.87) enters a start with momentum. The left-hander ended a career-worst nine-game losing streak Friday as he threw a six-hitter in a 7-0 victory at San Francisco for his first win in 15 starts since beating Arizona on June 9.Duke's losing streak was the longest by a Pirates pitcher since Jose DeLeon lost 11 in a row in 1985.The win was Duke's first on the road since May 27, 2007, at Cincinnati. He had been 0-7 with a 5.99 ERA in 17 starts between road victories.Duke has been very good lately against the Astros, going 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA in his last three starts versus them.