CHICAGO -- Astros manager Brad Mills has certainly enjoyed what he has seen in the second half of the season from right fielder Hunter Pence, who prior to Monday, was batting .329 with 11 homers and 42 RBIs since July 1.

Pence, who entered the opener against the Cubs leading the team in batting average (.291), home runs (22) and was second behind Carlos Lee in RBIs (79), hit a rare home run to straightaway right field Sunday at Arizona, which Mills sees as a good sign.

"He's doing everything more consistently, which is nice," Mills said. "He's definitely swinging with more confidence. He's swinging the bat better and maybe seeing the ball better. He's confident he can hit the ball to right field and hit it out. That means you can wait longer and see the ball longer."

Pence needs three homers to reach 25 for the third consecutive season and is four RBIs shy of his career high of 83, set in 2008 in his first full season in the Major Leagues. Prior to Monday, he had hit safely in 44 of 52 games since July 6.

Blum open to returning to Astros next year

CHICAGO -- It's been a challenging year physically for veteran infielder Geoff Blum, who missed 25 games after undergoing surgery in July to clean out loose bodies in his left elbow, and later was sidelined for a few days with bulging disks in his neck.

Blum, 37, hasn't made any decisions on whether he'll return to play next year, but if he does, it will be with the Astros. Blum and the Astros have a $1.65 million option for 2011. He entered Monday hitting .253 with one homer and 17 RBIs in 182 at-bats.

"I think I'm at the mercy of the ballclub," Blum said. "It's been a rough year for me physically for whatever reason. Some people are going to blame age, but I think mentally, I still have game left. I'm at the point in my career I have to run it by the family.

"I've got girls in school, a wife that has been putting up with me for the last 12 years, so it's something when the season ends we have to talk about. But I'd be more than happy to be an Astro again. I think if I plan on coming next year, it will definitely be as an Astro."

Blum is quite valuable; not only because of his versatility, but because of the veteran leadership quality he brings to the Astros' increasingly young clubhouse.

Bogusevic makes first Major League start

CHICAGO -- Growing up in the Chicago area, Astros rookie Brian Bogusevic dreamed about getting a chance to play at Wrigley Field. Bogusevic not only got that opportunity on Monday, but he made his first Major League start against the Cubs.

Bogusevic, the Astros' first-round pick in 2005, started in left field for manager Brad Mills and batted sixth in the lineup. Bogusevic had seen Cubs starter Casey Coleman in the Minor Leagues, which played into Mills' decisions to start Bogusevic.

"It's really exciting, and I'm looking forward to getting a chance to play and I can't wait to get out there," Bogusevic said before the game. "Everybody's familiar with the field and you see the Cubs playing all the time on WGN, so it's real exciting."

Bogusevic spent some time Monday with third-base coach Dave Clark discussing the nuances of playing the outfield at Wrigley Field, which can be rather tricky on a day like Monday when the wind was blowing out.

"He told me the grass gets high pretty quick so you have to come to the ball, and if it goes into the ivy, don't try to go in and get it, just throw your hands up for a [ground-rule] double," Bogusevic said.

Matt Downs, whom the Astros claimed off waivers on Aug. 25 from the Giants, also made his first start for Houston. He played shortstop and batted seventh. Downs had never previously started at shortstop in the Majors, spending most of his time at second.

Paulino's simulated game pushed back

CHICAGO -- Because the Cubs couldn't make Wrigley Field available to the Astros on Wednesday afternoon, right-hander Felipe Paulino had to have his simulated game pushed back to Thursday, prior to the series opener against the Dodgers at Minute Maid Park.

Paulino, who's been on the disabled list since June 21 with shoulder tendinitis, threw a 45-pitch, two-inning simulated game on Saturday in Arizona and has been feeling good. The Astros are hoping to get him into some games in relief by season's end.

Astros manager Brad Mills said Paulino could be activated not long after his simulated game if all goes well.

"We're going to buffer what we say about that until we see how he comes through the simulated game," Mills said.

Paulino is 1-8 with a respectable 4.40 ERA in 14 starts this year with the Astros. In a five-start stretch span from May 19 through June 9, he was 1-1 with a 1.75 ERA.