Sometimes it takes a long road trip for a team to discover itself.
According to left fielder Moises Alou, whose three hits Sunday helped the Cubs to a 7-3 victory over Houston, that's exactly what happened on this two-week odyssey through the National League Central Division.
"When we were in Pittsburgh, it was the first time in my [two-year] Cubs history that we had eight guys together drinking, talking, hanging out," Alou said. "Last year, you didn't see that.
"When you go on the road, you get along good, you have fun, and you take that to the ballpark. Last year we had the starting pitchers hanging out over there, the blacks or the whites over here, the Latinos over here. This year we're a lot different. ... We're like a family now."
The Cubs won eight games on a road trip for the first time since 1993, when they went 8-2 while playing out the string in September.
They took two of three from the Astros to open up a 2 1/2-game lead over Houston and St. Louis after starting out the trip with a 1 1/2-game lead.
"We started the road trip strong, and we ended it strong," manager Dusty Baker said. "Everyone contributed."
After a shaky start, Cubs starter Carlos Zambrano (5-4) allowed three runs on five hits in 61/3 innings, tying Shawn Estes and Mark Prior for the team lead in victories.
Zambrano walked five and admitted he didn't have "great stuff," but he came up with the big pitches when he needed them most.
"No matter if it's the Yankees, Houston, St. Louis or whoever, we have to play like we are now," Zambrano said. "We have to play like winners, and we have winners on this team."
Alou drove in three runs. Alex Gonzalez and Lenny Harris chipped in with two RBIs apiece as the Cubs improved to 9-5 without slugger Sammy Sosa in the lineup.
"I don't think we've really clicked as a team for an extended period of time yet," reliever Mike Remlinger said. "You're starting to see an attitude where every day we come in expecting to win, whether we've won our last four or five or lost how many it may be.
"For this team to come in and play a team of the caliber of the Astros and be able to bounce back and do this, it says a lot about us."
On Monday the Cubs begin a 12-game homestand against Pittsburgh, Houston, Tampa Bay and the New York Yankees.
"This long road trip was tough," said center fielder Corey Patterson, who also saw the good side to it. "Now we're going home with a good attitude and great confidence."