NEW YORK -- Back home with a comfortable cushion, the Mets want to lock up another NL East title before September gets old.
Lastings Milledge got them off to a terrific start Friday night.
The young right fielder made a diving catch to help thwart a potential rally, then hit a three-run homer that punctuated New York's 11-3 rout of the road-weary Houston Astros.
"This is the time we need to put down the hammer," David Wright said. "We have a golden opportunity here to go ahead and put this thing away."
Carlos Beltran homered and drove in two runs, Wright delivered a big hit and the first-place Mets backed Mike Pelfrey with a relentless offensive outburst as they returned home from a 5-5 road trip with a rousing victory.
Trying to win consecutive division titles for the first time, the Mets would like to build an insurmountable advantage on a nine-game homestand that includes visits from Atlanta and Philadelphia -- their two closest pursuers.
With the Phillies' loss to Florida, New York increased its edge to six games -- essentially nullifying Philadelphia's four-game sweep of the Mets last week that trimmed the margin to two.
"Good teams, they can smell it. I would venture to say we know what time it is now," New York manager Willie Randolph said.
The Mets (79-61) matched their season high at 18 games above .500. They have 22 games remaining, same as Philadelphia.
Jorge Sosa relieved Pelfrey with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth, but escaped the jam unscathed. Milledge made an outstanding grab on Craig Biggio's blooper to shallow right field, holding all three runners. Sosa then struck out Lance Berkman on a 3-2 pitch to preserve a 5-2 lead.
"That probably was the play of the game," Biggio said. "The kid made a really nice play, and then (Sosa) made a good pitch on Lance."
Jose Reyes hit a leadoff triple to left-center and scored on Luis Castillo's single. Moises Alou had an RBI double and Paul Lo Duca added a sacrifice fly before Milledge stepped to the plate and received a warm ovation from the crowd of 51,113.
He drove the next pitch to left for his fifth homer, making the score 11-2, and raised his index finger as he rounded first.
"I definitely liked the catch better," Milledge said. "That really won us the game and gave us a lot of energy."
When the dazed Astros finally ended the inning on a strikeout, they threw the ball around the infield, not realizing it was the third out.
"Sometimes that happens in a long inning with a lot of things going. It's still no excuse. We need to be focused," Houston interim manager Cecil Cooper said.
Berkman homered in the first for the Astros, who fell to 26-46 away from home -- the worst record in the major leagues. They have lost five of six, all on the road, and have been outscored 25-5 in their past two games.
"These guys are playing for something and we should be playing, if for nothing else, to have some pride in what we're doing," Cooper said. "This is not going to continue. It won't continue. We need to find a way to stop it and keep competing. I won't let it happen."
Pelfrey (2-7) was coming off a key 5-1 victory in Atlanta last Saturday, his best major league outing and first win since July 18, 2006. Selected ninth overall in the 2005 amateur draft, the right-hander pitched out of trouble all night Friday. He allowed two runs and 10 hits in 5 1-3 innings for his fourth career victory.
"The more and more I go out there, the more comfortable I feel. More than anything, I'm throwing more strikes," Pelfrey said. "I feel like I'm getting better. I didn't feel I had great stuff today, but I battled and I got through."
Houston led 2-0 when Rodriguez walked Pelfrey leading off the third. After a one-out walk to Castillo, Wright's RBI double brought chants of "MVP! MVP!" Castillo scored from first when the relay throw from center fielder Hunter Pence kicked away from Biggio for an error.
Beltran followed with a run-scoring single that put New York ahead for good.
"We're in great shape. We've been in first forever," Milledge said before calling the Mets the best team in the division.
Bothered by a sore thumb on his pitching hand, Rodriguez dropped to 2-10 in 14 road starts. He beat Pelfrey with a four-hit shutout on July 6, the only complete game of his career.
- Beltran has reached base safely in 23 straight games. He has 21 RBI in his last 18 games.
- The Astros stranded 12.
- New York is 31-15 in series openers.
- Houston has homered in nine consecutive games.