HOUSTON -- The box score will show it was Jose Bautista's late two-run home run that lifted the Pirates past the Houston Astros, 4-3, last night at Minute Maid Park.
- Game: Pirates (RHP Matt Morris 9-9, 4.59) vs. Houston Astros (LHP Wandy Rodriguez 8-13, 4.65), 7:05 p.m., Minute Maid Park.
- TV/Radio: WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Key matchup: Rodriguez will not be pleased to see Jason Bay back in the lineup. Bay is 10 for 19 with two home runs, four doubles and 11 RBIs against him.
- Of note: The Pirates' 10 victories against Houston are their most since they went 10-2 vs. the Astros in 1976.
The highlight reel will show something else.
Again and again.
Maybe for years.
"I thought the kid in center field made a hell of a play the other day in Pittsburgh," manager Jim Tracy said, referring to Nyjer Morgan's remarkable diving catch at PNC Park just five days earlier. "But this might be as good a catch as you can witness. ... I mean, I don't know how he caught that ball."
Neither did anyone else, it seemed.
This was the scene of Morgan's latest magnificence ...
The Pirates were ahead, 1-0, in the third with Ian Snell dueling Roy Oswalt, and Houston had the bases loaded. Ty Wigginton drove a pitch deep toward the fence in right-center, about 410 feet from home plate.
Morgan sprinted toward the fence at full speed, never slowing even as he hit the warning track. It appeared he had no chance, partly because the ball was stung so hard, partly because his back was completely turned to the ball and partly because, with his final two or three steps, he had to veer back slightly to his left.
Fine time for a route adjustment.
And yet, somehow, stunningly, with Morgan's head still facing the fence less than a foot in front of him, the ball found his mitt, which was turned up in the basket formation made famous by Willie Mays in the 1954 World Series.
Almost as impressive, he collided with that padded fence with great force but merely pinballed off it, never falling.
"Crazy," first baseman Adam LaRoche called it.
"Amazing," Snell said.
Perhaps catcher Ronny Paulino had the best reaction.
"No, no, no, it didn't happen," he replied when asked about it. "I still don't believe I saw that."
Tracy was no less incredulous, but he found more than a few words to sum it up.
"I certainly didn't think that, when I never saw Nyjer's face turn toward the infield ... that's an incredible play," he said. "I don't know how you could possibly describe it. Willie Mays made one at the Polo Grounds, and I'm not sure Nyjer had as much room to work with between himself and the wall as Willie did. On that film clip we've all seen a million times, Willie's only about two or three steps onto the warning track."
Morgan explained that he glanced over his right shoulder while sprinting and that the ball, because of that, appeared to him to be "bouncing." But he "peeped it out" at the last second, or, as he put it, "just before I hit the turnbuckle."
Which catch was better, this or the robbery of the Chicago Cubs' Aramis Ramirez?
"I'd say this one," Morgan said, "because it meant more to the team with the bases loaded and I could help out my pitcher."
It was appreciated.
"Ever since he's been up here ... man, that guy plays a great center field," Snell said. "He comes in every day and tells the pitchers, 'I've got your back. Don't worry.' He's like a spark plug for us, all that energy he brings. And we need that."
The Pirates needed much else to take this opener of a 10-game trip ...
Snell continued his fine September - four earned runs in three starts - by exiting with a 1-1 tie after six. The run he allowed could have been avoided, too, except that Freddy Sanchez - the National League leader in fielding percentage at second base - failed to catch Bautista's throw on what would have been an inning-ending double play in the sixth.
Snell coolly retired the next two batters to strand runners at the corners.
"I let my defense do the work," Snell said. "I didn't worry too much about strikeouts."
Still, he had eight.
Houston took a 2-1 lead in the seventh on Lance Berkman's home run off Damaso Marte, but Bautista leapfrogged the Pirates ahead in their next at-bat: With a man on base and one out, he got every bit of a Chad Qualls fastball and clanged it high off the left foul pole for his 15th home run -- one shy of his career high -- and a 3-2 lead.
It surely helped Bautista that he worked the count to 3-1.
"Tremendous at-bat," Tracy said.
Right after that, Steve Pearce singled, stole second and came around on Paulino's single.
Houston pulled within 4-3 in the bottom half off Shawn Chacon, but Matt Capps put down the Astros in the ninth for his 17th save.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com . First Published September 15, 2007 4:00 AM