HOUSTON (AP) – Brad Ausmus singled to right-center with one out in the bottom of the ninth, giving the Houston Astros a 3-2 victory over the New York Mets on Thursday night and – much to the delight of their fans – ruining Carlos Beltran’s return to Minute Maid Park.

Orlando Palmeiro began the winning rally with a single off Roberto Hernandez (5-4), then moved to second on a sacrifice by Adam Everett. Ausmus, who drove in the Astros’ previous run on a safety squeeze bunt, solidly smacked the first pitch he saw high over the second baseman’s head, leaving Beltran to jog after it, knowing the game was lost.

Dan Wheeler (1-2) pitched 1 2-3 scoreless innings for the win – Houston’s fifth straight and 11th in 12 games. The victory also moved the Astros into a tie with Washington (55-47) for the lead in the NL wild card race.

New York has started this road trip with three losses in four games after having won seven of its previous eight overall.

Beltran, the star of Houston’s postseason run last October, went 0-for-4, hitting three infield grounders and an easy fly to center. He also helped draw a crowd of 43,552, the second-biggest of the season and fourth-largest in the 6-year history of the ballpark.

Most of them came to boo Beltran. The jeers began when the lineups were announced about 15 minutes before the game. When he was introduced for his first at-bat, it could hardly be heard over the boos that began when he left the on-deck circle.

The fans were equally passionate for Beltran last season, especially when he was hitting eight homers in 12 playoff games. They turned on him because of his decision to take a $119 million, seven-year deal with the Mets instead of accepting a relatively close offer from Houston. Beltran said a full no-trade guarantee swayed him.

The Mets wasted another great outing by Pedro Martinez, who had won five of his last six starts. He allowed two runs and four hits. He added eight strikeouts to his NL-leading total and upped his career count to 2,808, passing Cy Young (2,803) for 16th all-time.

New York scored a run in the first off rookie starter Ezequiel Astacio, but that came after loading the bases with no outs. The rally ended with two fly outs, the first a sacrifice fly, and a strikeout by Mike Piazza.

The Mets didn’t get past second base again off Astacio, who allowed one run and four hits over six innings. He struck out five and walked three in his first start in the rotation spot that had belonged to Brandon Backe. Backe went on the disabled list before the game with a strained muscle on his left side that will force him out for at least two weeks and possibly longer.

Martinez allowed only a walk his first time through the lineup and had given up just one hit until Everett tied it with two outs in the fifth.

Miguel Cairo put New York back ahead in the seventh when he put the second pitch from reliever Chad Qualls into the front row above the left-field scoreboard. It was only his second homer of the season and it ended a 14-inning scoreless streak by the Houston bullpen.

The Astros answered immediately, tying it on Ausmus’ second RBI bunt in as many games.

David Wright of the Mets singled in the eighth, upping his hitting streak to a career-best 15 games.

Notes: With the Astros stealing three bases and the Mets none, Houston passed New York for the NL lead with 84. … Backe was behind home plate to catch the ceremonial opening pitch – from his dad, Harold. The ball was low and outside and got past the younger Backe. Once the ball was recovered, he autographed it. … Before the game, more than 40 people stood on the field in front of the Mets’ dugout and were sworn into the Marines.

AP-ES-07-28-05 2309EDT

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