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07/19/12 11:00 PM ET

Downs slugs way into more playing time

SAN DIEGO -- Astros first baseman Matt Downs found himself back in the starting lineup Thursday, one day after hitting two homers in a game for the first time in his career. The power stroke is nothing new for Downs, who has hit 17 homers in 314 at-bats in the past two seasons.

Downs was one of the Astros' top offensive players last year, even in a part-time role, when he hit 10 homers in 199 at-bats and led the Majors in pinch-hit RBIs and pinch-hit on-base percentage.

"He has a knack for putting good at-bats together and having good swings," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "He gives himself an opportunity with those good swings."

Downs isn't having quite the bang-up season that he did last year, entering Thursday hitting .191 with seven homers and 13 RBIs (seven of his 22 hits have been home runs). Although he's getting the occasional start, Mills likes what he can do off the bench.

"The one thing about him is he studies pitchers so much and the guys in the bullpen, the guys he's going to face coming in at the end of the game," Mills said. "He goes a great job with that."

Worth noting

• Astros manager Brad Mills said catcher Jason Castro, who had his right knee drained and had a pain-killing injection Tuesday in Houston, had better range of motion Thursday. The club is still hoping he can return sometime next week from the disabled list.

• Expect second baseman Jose Altuve to get a day off this weekend in Arizona. Altuve has started 15 consecutive games for the Astros and didn't get to rest during the All-Star break, considering he was the Astros' lone representative.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.