Joe Sambito, the Houston Astros' relief pitcher, was pretending he was a Los Angeles Dodger. "I've got to be feeling demoralized; I can't help it," he said. "You lose two games like that after getting great pitching performances, it has to shake you.

"I have to remind myself that last year the Astros went into L.A. needing just one win to wrap up the division and we won three in a row. But it isn't the same psychologically because of these two games. Still, I have to talk about last year because what else have I got left?"

One hundred yards from where Sambito sat late Wednesday in the joyous Astro locker room, the real Dodgers were making similar speeches. They had come to Houston hoping to at least split the first two games of the National League Western Division playoff series.

They could easily have won both games. Their starting pitchers, Fernando Valenzuela and Jerry Reuss, gave up one run in 17 innings. But the relief pitchers did not do as well, specifically 24-year-old Dave Stewart. In the ninth inning of the first game, Stewart threw a home run pitch to Alan Ashby, giving the Astros a 3-1 victory. In the 11th inning of the second game, Stewart gave up singles to Phil Garner and Tony Scott. Garner eventually scored the winning run after Stewart came out.

"Why'd I bring Stewart back?" asked Dodger Manager Tommy Lasorda rhetorically. "Because I thought he was the best guy available."

Lasorda was being asked a lot of questions about his strategical moves after the Dodgers went down, 2-0, in the best-of-five-series Wednesday. Clearly, he was not pleased with the questions or the questioners.

Why had he removed Valenzuela for a pinch hitter with the score tied in the first game? Why had he pinch hit for Davey Lopes, the Dodgers' only two-hit man, in the 11th inning of the second game? Why did he go back to Stewart? Why was right fielder Derrel Thomas playing so shallow when pinch hitter Denny Walling slammed the game-winning hit over his head?

Each time, after glaring at whoever asked the question, Lasorda's answer was the same, "Because I thought it was the best thing to do."

Judging by the results, what Lasorda thought best, wasn't. In the other dugout, his counterpart, Bill Virdon, seemed to push all the right buttons. In the first game, he sent Craig Reynolds to pinch-hit for Kiko Garcia with two out in the ninth. Reynolds originally was supposed to replace Garcia in the top of the 10th at shortstop. But Virdon decided at the last minute to let the lefty hit against Stewart.

Reynolds responded with a clean single that gave Ashby the chance to hit his home run on the first pitch.

In the second game, playing a hunch, Virdon started Dickie Thon, who has done most of his playing at second base, at shortstop. Thon came up with two hits and three good fielding plays, two on balls deep in the hole with Dodgers on third base.

In the crucial 11th, Virdon considered lifting Sambito after the Dodgers put men on first and second with one out. But he strung along with his ace reliever and Sambito struck out pinch hitters Reggie Smith and Mike Marshall.

In the bottom of the inning, with the bases loaded and two out, Virdon sent Walling up to hit for Thon and Walling produced the game-winning hit.

Lasorda says he will go with Bob Welch, 24, in the third game Friday, passing over the more experienced Burt Hooton. Virdon will pitch Bob Knepper. If there is a fourth game, Lasorda will go with Valenzuela while Virdon says he will go with Vern Ruhle.