HOUSTON -- The Milwaukee Brewers lost their ace, then moved into first place in the NL Central.
Johnny Estrada hit his second grand slam of the season against Houston and Milwaukee overcame an injury to Ben Sheets to beat the Astros 9-1 on Tuesday night, moving the Brewers less than a percentage point ahead of the Chicago Cubs in a tight division race.
Claudio Vargas (11-4) pitched four scoreless innings in relief of Sheets, who left with tightness in his left hamstring after giving up a run in the first. Team officials said Sheets would be evaluated on Wednesday. His status was uncertain for his next scheduled start, in Atlanta on Sunday.
"I guess I'll see tomorrow," said Sheets, still in pain after the game. "It was just grabbing me back there. I felt great in the first (inning). I thought I was going to get into a nice groove."
The Brewers didn't need Sheets against the Astros -- Vargas and three relievers held them without a hit over the final seven innings to win their third straight game.
"The grand slam was big," Estrada said. "But Claudio sucking up those innings was bigger. That was a huge effort by the bullpen."
"I was telling the guys a few days ago, whoever puts together a good seven-game win streak is probably going to pull away and win this thing," Estrada said. "Hopefully, we can keep it going."
Estrada's second career slam capped a five-run fourth inning off rookie Felipe Paulino (0-1), who was making his first major league start. The 23-year-old right-hander was recalled from the minors on Sept. 4.
"There was an excitement in the ballpark," said Houston manager Cecil Cooper. "But they put five up in that inning and that kind of took the fans out of it."
"I've pitched out of the bullpen before," Vargas said. "I just take the ball, try to get loose and try to make my pitches. That's what I did."
Houston took 1-0 lead in the first inning before Sheets departed.
Rookie Josh Anderson led off with a double down the left-field line, went to third on Craig Biggio's bunt and scored on Berkman's single up the middle. Anderson is 12-for-25 since the Astros recalled him from the minors on Sept. 1.
Sheets came out to start the second inning, threw a few warmup pitches, then signaled to the dugout that he was hurt. Manager Ned Yost walked to the mound with a trainer and the right-handed Sheets pointed to his lower left leg.
"It didn't pop," Sheets said. "It just gradually grabbed worse and worse every time."
Sheets jogged around the infield and threw a warmup pitch before walking off the field. He's already missed a month this season with a sprained finger and strained his groin in April.
"I'm mentally fried from injuries this year," he said. "The guys picked me up nicely. That made me feel better. I don't know about the injuries, though. They keep happening."
Paulino allowed only one hit through the first three innings before crumbling in the fourth.
After Joe Dillon led off with a ground out, Braun tripled over Anderson's head in straightaway center and Fielder followed with a broken-bat single to left that tied the game at 1.
"It took me five years to hit one," Estrada said. "After I hit the first one, I figured it would take five more to hit another one."
Turns out it took less than three months.
This time, Estrada drove a 2-2 pitch from Paulino over the right-field wall, just inside the foul pole. Estrada is 6-for-10 with 19 RBI with the bases loaded this season.
Left-hander Trever Miller relieved Paulino to start the fifth. He walked Dillon before Braun lined his 31st homer of the season a few feet inside the left-field foul pole.
- Milwaukee leads the NL with eight grand slams this season.
- The Brewers are 13-4 against the Astros in 2007, their highest single-season win total against any opponent since they moved to the NL in 1998.
- Houston has started a rookie pitcher in 39 games this season.
- The Astros have scored three runs or less in all 10 of their losses since Sept. 4.