PITTSBURGH -- Once the Houston Astros got into the 11th inning, the 12th, the 13th and later, they didn't need anyone to tell them they had to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates. They already knew it from the out-of-town scoreboard that showed the St. Louis Cardinals winning.
Brad Ausmus' sacrifice fly in the 15th inning finished off Houston's comeback within a comeback as the Astros rallied from five runs down to beat the Pirates 7-6 on Wednesday night, their eighth straight win that kept them close to St. Louis in the NL Central.
"I've complained all year about not being able to get a run in from third, so I'm going to kiss his lunch for getting that one in," manager Phil Garner said of Ausmus' game-winner.
The Astros didn't gain any ground for the first time during their winning streak but, almost as importantly, didn't lose any as they stayed 1½ games out with four to play. The Cardinals cut their magic number for winning the division to four by beating San Diego 4-2 on Albert Pujols' homer to end a seven-game losing streak.
"I'm sure everybody saw that, so I've got to applaud these guys for a great effort and getting results," Garner said. "We have to plan to win 'em all and still it may be not enough, but the bottom line is everybody is still playing."
He was right -- most of the Astros knew the Cardinals had won, yet the tired team persevered to win its fourth game in four nights in three ballparks. They finished off a four-game sweep of the Cardinals at home Sunday night, then won a makeup game Monday night in Philadelphia before winning the first two of a three-game series in Pittsburgh.
"Seeing the Cardinals win makes it even more crucial for us going into extra innings, and understanding we move to 2½ out with only four games left for us if we lose," Ausmus said. "Obviously it was a crucial win."
Houston, held to one hit over the first five extra innings by three rookie relievers, finally won it against Jonah Bayliss (1-1) in the 15th. After Eric Bruntlett walked and Craig Biggio's sacrifice bunt turned into a fielder's choice, Orlando Palmeiro singled to center. Ausmus then fought off a two-strike pitch to lift the fly to center that scored Biggio.
"We had chances to win, but they finally scratched out the run we had been working to get," Pirates manager Jim Tracy said. "But our young relievers, to do the job they did, pitching against a club playing for its playoff life ... they really grew up tonight."
Chris Sampson (2-0), the Astros' starter Monday night in Philadelphia, pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings to win it and run the Pirates' losing streak -- all against contenders -- to six. Trever Miller got the final out for the save, his first since 2004 with Tampa Bay.
The Pirates had a chance to win it in the 11th. Chris Duffy walked and stole second and, after an out, Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay were intentionally walked with two outs to load the bases. Dan Wheeler, working his third inning, then got Xavier Nady on a slow roller to third.
In the 12th, Duffy flied out to left to leave the potential winning run on third. Miller later struck out Duffy to end the game.
Sanchez, the NL batting leader with a .346 average, went 2-for-5 with an RBI. He has six hits in two games. Nady's two-run single keyed a three-run fifth that gave the Pirates a 6-1 lead.
The Astros, trying to stage one of the greatest late-season surges in major league history after being 8½ games out on Sept. 20, then rallied to keep that comeback going. They scored four runs in the sixth on Lance Berkman's 44th homer, a two-run drive, Mike Lamb's RBI double and Adam Everett's sacrifice fly, then tied it on Luke Scott's two-out single off Salomon Torres in the ninth.
Willy Taveras reached on an infield single with one out and moved into scoring position when Berkman was intentionally walked ahead of Scott's single.
"We've got to win -- we could care less about anything except getting wins right now," Biggio said. "It took us a long time, but we got it and that's all that matters."
Torres, making his major league-leading 92nd appearance, had been 10-for-10 in save opportunities since replacing the injured Mike Gonzalez (24-for-24) as the Pirates closer. Torres is 10-of-13 overall.
The Pirates took a 2-0 lead against starter Jason Hirsh on Sanchez's RBI single in the first and Ryan Doumit's sixth homer, a solo shot to right with one out in the second. Hirsh couldn't make it out of the fourth after allowing three runs and six hits.
- Pittsburgh is two losses short of matching the 95 it had last season.
- Duffy, the center fielder, also may have prevented a run when he stretched out on the dirt warning track to run down Lamb's deep fly ball with a runner on second and one out in the seventh.
- The Pirates have had 24 NL batting champions, the most of any team. Honus Wagner won eight and Clemente won four. Bill Madlock won the last two, in 1981 and 1983.
- The teams played an 18-inning game in PNC Park on May 27, with the Pirates winning 8-7.
- After the game, official scorer Tony Krizmanich changed an error given pitcher Dan Borkowski on Jack Wilson's slow-rolling grounder in the three-run fifth to a single.