Marlins 8, Astros 2

Dontrelle Willis goes 6 feet 4, about two-and-a-quarter bills, and 90 percent of it appears to be legs and teeth. From a distance of 60 feet 6 inches away, as the Florida Marlins' lefty starts forward with an exaggerated kick of his right leg, he looks like he is about to step on your head. And at the end of his follow-through -- lunging forward, torso uncoiling, teeth bared -- it seems like he might just eat you for a late-night snack.

And if you think that's scary, wait until he puts down his bat and starts pitching.

Indeed, a few things were clear in the wake of Willis's dominant performance on the mound and at the plate in the Marlins' 8-2 win over the Houston Astros on Monday night at Minute Maid Park.

First, and for the first time this season, the Marlins are now your leaders in the constantly shifting, shootout-style chase for the National League wild card, leapfrogging the Astros to take a half-game lead, a quarter of the way through this crucial four-game series. The Philadelphia Phillies gained a half-game to pull within one game of the lead, while the idle Washington Nationals remained four games back.

Second, Willis is going to make some opposing team very unhappy if they have to face him in October. This was his sixth victory in a row, and his 21st this season, tying him with St. Louis's Chris Carpenter for the most in the majors.

And third, if Willis played for the Nationals, he'd be batting cleanup.

As impressive as his pitching performance was -- he gave up eight hits and two earned runs in notching his seventh complete game -- it was a mere sidelight to his stunning exploits at the plate.

Specifically, on a 3-1 pitch from right-hander Scott Strickland with a runner on first base in the sixth inning, Willis launched a fly ball with the sort of majestic trajectory one might associate with Barry Bonds. It was a towering home run to left-center that reached the upper deck -- perhaps 100 feet beyond the 373-foot sign on the outfield wall.

"That ball was crushed," joked first baseman Carlos Delgado. "It's embarrassing to the rest of us. We're working on our swings since we were 5 years old, and here's a pitcher hitting it 700 feet."

It was awesome. And it was no fluke. Willis is hitting .259 with 11 RBI, and he is only the fifth player in the last 20 years with both 20 wins and 20 hits in the same season. He also drew a walk, then went into second base with a head-first slide.

"It's like a high school game, where he's the best player on the field," said Marlins center fielder Juan Pierre. "Best pitcher, best hitter, everything."

On a night like this, in fact, it is hard to comprehend why the Marlins aren't cruising to a division title, instead of scrapping for a wild-card entry into the playoffs. On a night like this, when Willis is superb on the mound and the offense has plenty of power to support him, it is difficult to see why the Marlins aren't the best team in the East division, instead of merely the best team on paper. Fireballing right-handers Josh Beckett and A.J. Burnett start the next two games. How is this team not running away with the division?

"We've been frustrated at times," General Manager Larry Beinfest said.

The answer, of course, was obvious to anyone who witnessed Monday night's win: Hand a bat and a glove to the best player on the field, and let him step on some heads.