HOUSTON -- Except for the very hairy and scary ninth inning, this game was as predictable as Houston traffic on a Monday morning.

It's a familiar setting -- Roy Oswalt faces the Reds, Roy Oswalt wins. Such was the case Thursday night at Minute Maid Park when Oswalt logged career win No. 23 over Cincinnati and the Astros prevailed, 8-6. The game was only that close because the Reds surprised two little-used relievers with five runs in the ninth.

Oswalt, on the other hand, was brilliant, pitching on short rest just in case he's needed on Monday to face the Cubs. The right-hander allowed a solo homer to Corey Patterson in the first, holding the Reds to two hits over a 91-pitch outing that elevated the Astros' record to 84-74.

Unfortunately for the Astros, the Mets and Brewers also won. That means the Astros are 3 1/2 back with four games to play. A Mets or Brewers win or an Astros loss will eliminate Houston from National League Wild Card contention.

"We're still alive," manager Cecil Cooper said. "We'll keep playing."

But even if they keep playing and keep winning, it might not be good enough. They could still get bounced by the end of the day Friday.

"We're going to have fun, and if we can mess things up good enough, maybe we can sneak in," Geoff Blum said. "But if we don't, I think we're all pretty comfortable with the fact that we played pretty good baseball this year."

Especially against the Reds, whom they dominated at a 12-3 clip. Oswalt, of course, helped the cause, going 4-0. On Thursday, he made contributions from both sides of his game, knocking two key hits that helped propel the Astros to a 5-1 lead after three innings.

Oswalt felt fine after six frames and walked to the mound for the seventh, but only for symbolic purposes. Cooper soon went out to remove his ace pitcher, who retreated to the dugout to a round of applause from the crowd for perhaps the final time this season.

Cooper said later he did that to give the fans a chance to cheer Oswalt, but Oswalt revealed that he orchestrated the move so that he would have a chance to shake Brad Ausmus' hand one last time, just in case that's the final game they'll work together as batterymates.

Ausmus is leaving the Astros after 10 years, and other than a brief stint with former catcher Raul Chavez, Oswalt and Ausmus have been a tandem for most of Oswalt's eight years in the big leagues.

"I asked [Cooper] to go out there so I could shake Brad's hand on the field," Oswalt said. "We've been together seven, eight years. I wanted to give him a hand shake for being back there."

Ausmus said he was touched that Oswalt thought to do that.

"To me, that's very special that he even thought to do that," Ausmus said. "I wanted to thank him, as well."

Ausmus referred to Oswalt as "probably the best pitcher I've ever caught." That a high compliment, considering Ausmus has worked with the likes of Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

"I understand some guys have some longer resumes, but over eight years that we've played together, Roy's the best pitcher I've ever caught," Ausmus said. "He's probably the winningest pitcher I've ever caught, and he makes it very easy on me as a receiver to do my job. Quite frankly, he probably doesn't even need a catcher. He could probably pitch with a pitch-back. He makes me look good."

On Thursday against the Reds, everyone looked good. Johnny Cueto allowed baserunners and runs galore during his 2 2/3 innings on the mound, registering his shortest outing since lasting 1 2/3 frames against the Cardinals on April 29.

He hit Kazuo Matsui to load the bases in the second, and Michael Bourn emptied them with a double to left field, putting the Astros ahead, 3-1.

The Astros nearly batted around in the next frame, sending eight men to the plate during a two-run inning that included an RBI single by Oswalt and a bases-loaded walk to Matsui.

But as the Astros were finishing this win over the Reds, it was impossible not to notice the left-field scoreboard, which showed walk-off wins for both the Mets and Brewers. Scoreboard-watching has become commonplace for the Astros, who may have just run out of time.

"You look at the scoreboard, and try to win the game," Bourn said. "You look at the scoreboard, try to win the game. Look at the scoreboard, try to win the game. Win the game, look at the scoreboard again. It's back and forth. You look up and the Mets were losing 6-4, and all of a sudden, they came back to win. It's unfortunate, but we've still got an outside chance."

Added Oswalt: "We're just playing. We've got three more games. See if we can win those three and see what happens."