Astros 7, Braves 3

When the cowboys, with their hats pulled low and their boots tanned dark, sit and talk on their ranches about their beloved Astros' spectacular pitching rotation, the smallest and the slimmest ace is sometimes an afterthought.

Of course there is Roger Clemens, the future Hall of Famer with the thick arms and legs, who simply seems to vanquish opponents with his steely glare from the mound. Next is Andy Pettitte, the Texan who came home from New York with a handful of World Series rings and a postseason resume to match any man who has worn the sacred pinstripes.

And finally Roy Oswalt's name will be brought up once all the beer has been drunk and the campfire has almost flickered out.

No pitcher has won more games the past two seasons than Oswalt, and it is simply because of the company he keeps that his name is not yet recognized as one of the best pitchers in baseball. In Houston's 7-3 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, Oswalt allowed three runs and six hits in 71/3 innings to give the Astros a 2-1 lead in the series. He was superb and only a late run charged to Oswalt that was scored against reliever Dan Wheeler lessened his pitching line.

And Oswalt, from tiny Weir, Miss., is the one to put his team on the brink of the of the National League Championship Series, not Clemens and not Pettitte.

"Where I come from is not very big," Oswalt said. "So wherever I go is bigger. I'm not a guy that wants sympathy. I'm not going to put that in front of what I do. If you get respect from your teammates, that's all you can ask for."

Though it was certain that Clemens and Pettitte would be slotted ahead of him in the rotation, Oswalt happily welcomed the accomplished duo. On his own, much had been expected of Oswalt and his margin for error was small.

"It took a lot of pressure off us as far as being perfect all the time," Oswalt said.

It was his curveball that dictated this outing. He used it often to get out of pressure situations.

"If I can keep it from popping out of my hand when they can read it early, I usually get guys to swing over it because of the speed difference in the fastball and curveball," Oswalt said.

To the mound for Game 3 went the unlikeliest of Atlanta aces, Jorge Sosa, the former journeyman outfielder turned journeyman infielder turned journeyman pitcher turned Braves savior. Not much was expected of Sosa, but the Braves knew the 27-year-old had an electric arm and could be spectacular if he could control his pitches. Sosa was superb this year, with a 13-3 record with a 2.55 ERA, and filled in ably for the injured Mike Hampton.

It was a sizeable hole in his swing that compelled the Seattle Mariners to make Sosa, who showed a strong arm while playing the outfield, into a pitcher. Sosa never hit above .253 in the minors as a position player. Yet it was that flawed swing that put the Braves back into the game in the second inning.

The Astros scored two runs against Sosa in the first inning with a double from Morgan Ensberg, scoring Craig Biggio, and a sacrifice fly from Mike Lamb, scoring Lance Berkman. Atlanta rallied in the second inning, cutting the deficit to one run on Brian McCann's single. Sosa stepped to the plate with men on first and third.

With two strikes, Sosa hit a ground ball single to left field to tie the game at 2.

The game remained tied until the following inning, when Lamb, the man supplanted by Alex Rodriguez in New York, hit a home run to right field against Sosa. Lamb may be known someday as one of the biggest footnotes in Yankees history.

"To think that someone of the Yankees' caliber was interested in me was awfully flattering," Lamb said. "I was the third baseman for the Yankees for about a week."

Aaron Boone's knee injury prior to the 2004 season forced the Yankees to look for a third baseman. That search led them to Lamb, a utility player for the Texas Rangers, who would have likely started had the Yankees not traded for Rodriguez. Lamb spent part of spring training with the Yankees before being traded to Houston.

"The thing about it is that it was in the offseason and I didn't have a chance to tell anyone I was the starting third baseman for the Yankees," Lamb said. "There's part of me that wishes I had never left. I'm in a good place here. I think they're doing well without me."

Lamb would end up being a footnote in this game, too, after the game blew up for Atlanta once Sosa, who allowed three runs in six innings, was taken out of the game. The bullpen gave up four runs in the seventh inning. Biggio, who had three doubles in the game, started the inning by sending a ball to left field. It was one of Houston's five hits in the inning.

Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox walked to the mound three times during the inning, making three pitching changes, first with a nervous jittery walk of anticipation that was followed by a slow walk of worry and then finished with a slumped stroll of resignation.

Oswalt was taken out of the game with one in the eighth and a man on first base. He walked slowly to the mound, and all the cowboys sitting in the stands, whose hats bobbed up and down after each Houston hit in the seventh, cheered.

Roy Oswalt, Houston's No. 3 starter, goes 71/3 effective innings, putting Atlanta on the brink of elimination. Oswalt is 40-22 over the past 2 seasons. Braves catcher Brian McCann lands face first in a futile effort to catch a foul ball; his team is trying to avoid a similarly inglorious first-round postseason exit. Craig Biggio swings a hot bat, going 3 for 5 and scoring twice. The Astros' leadoff man is hitting .500 in the series, which the Astros lead 2 games to 1.