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Houston - A fourth consecutive victory and a second consecutive series was there for them.

Three times.

All the Milwaukee Brewers had to do was close out the Houston Astros, and what started as a gloomy season all of a sudden would turn bright.

They failed.

But only twice.

The Brewers' bullpen couldn't hold leads in the eighth and ninth innings, but it refused to relinquish the one it inherited in the 11th. Right-hander Mark DiFelice finally pushed the door shut on the Astros to secure a 9-8 victory Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, extending both winning streaks and guaranteeing the Brewers a winning record on the road trip.

Ryan Braun singled home Corey Hart, who doubled, in the 11th. DiFelice created some drama by allowing a leadoff single, but he retired the next three batters to finish off the Astros.

quot;A win is a win at the end of the day, but this one is more fun,quot; Braun said. quot;It's a sign of being mentally tough. A lot of ups and downs. Ride the rollercoaster, but we ended up where we wanted to be.quot;

The Brewers' offense handed the bullpen its first lead in the eighth inning. Prince Fielder singled and Mike Cameron got ahead, 2-0, in the next at-bat against Houston reliever LaTroy Hawkins.

That second ball prompted Astros catcher Ivan quot;Pudgequot; Rodriguez to come out of his crouch and blister plate umpire Mike DiMuro with a tongue lashing that got him thrown out. Houston manager Cecil Cooper, whose team had issues with the strike zone all night, came out to defend his player and soon followed him out the door, although neither left the field immediately, sticking around to yell more.

Once the dust cleared, Cameron singled and J.J. Hardy walked to load the bases with nobody out in a 4-4 game. Bill Hall then delivered a cue shot single to right to score Fielder, and Jason Kendall's sacrifice fly to left plated Cameron for a 6-4 lead.

But Todd Coffey, the Brewers' most reliable reliever to this point, couldn't hold it. He allowed a double to Geoff Blum and a run-scoring single to J.R. Towles, Rodriguez's replacement behind the plate. After another dribbled single, Kazuo Matsui doubled into the left-field corner to score both runners and give the Astros a 7-6 advantage that would seem like ancient history by the end of this night.

After seeing that lead evaporate, the Brewers had another crack at the victory. But it would have to come against Houston's colorful closer Jose Valverde.

Not a problem.

Fielder, down 0-2 in the count, whistled your typical 98-mph fastball over the fence in the right-field corner and screamed in joy as he rounded first base. The ball got out as fast as it came in and gave the Brewers an 8-7 lead.

But Carlos Villanueva, the man who was anointed interim closer in the absence of Trevor Hoffman only to lose the role to Coffey, couldn't secure the victory, and the Astros tied the game with two outs on a throwing error by Hall, recently applauded for his solid defense, in the ninth inning.

Villanueva hit Lance Berkman to start the inning and moved to second on a bunt. Then, with two outs, Hall fielded a Hunter Pence chopper but threw it into the dirt. It bounced away from Fielder, and Berkman, running on contact, scored the tying run easily to send the game into extra innings.

quot;I had a play that I should've made,quot; Hall said. quot;I didn't have the best footing so I didn't get off the best throw. I'm not one to make excuses. I've been playing great defense and I'm not going to let that one play deter what I've been doing all season.quot;

Manager Ken Macha said there might be two blown saves next to two of his relievers, but they were victims of some bad breaks.

quot;Coffey got the little dribbler there,quot; Macha said. quot;Hit that ball a little harder and he's out of that inning. And they scored the other run on a hit batsman and an error.quot;

Brewers righty Jeff Suppan, coming off a six-inning, two-run start in New York, produced the team's ninth quality start in the last 10 games by going six innings and allowing four runs, although only three of those were earned. He walked four and struck out six.

One of those walks bit him in the fourth inning when he gave a cold Berkman a free pass to start the bottom half. Carlos Lee sent the next pitch deep into the left-field seats for a two-run homer that gave the Astros a 2-1 lead a half-inning after Fielder gave it to the Brewers with his first homer of the game.

The Astros extended that lead on a Michael Bourn home run to right-center.

Houston left-hander Mike Hampton had pitched fairly well to that point, escaping some jams and allowing only the homer to Fielder.

But Braun led off the sixth with a rocket off the left-field wall for a single, and after Hardy reached on a fielder's choice, Hall demolished a 2-2 fastball on the inner half and belt-high. When the shot finally landed on the concourse in left, the Brewers tied it up, 4-4.

Then the craziness ensued.

quot;To come back and win a game like this is definitely indicative of the fact that we're playing well,quot; Braun said. quot;We're headed in the right direction as a team.quot;

Copyright 2009, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)

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Added: April 26, 2009

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