One of the primary things manager Dusty Baker wanted the Cubs to improve this season was their ability to win close games.
They don't get any closer than Saturday's 1-0 victory over the Houston Astros in 16 innings, achieved on Sammy Sosa's RBI single through a drawn-in infield.
The Cubs ran their record in extra innings to 6-0 and raised their National League Central lead to two games over the Astros with as tough a win as they've eked out in this or any other year.
The Cubs struck out a franchise-record 23 times, including five by Sosa, and went through 20 players to get Todd Wellemeyer his first major-league win.
They managed to get a runner in scoring position only five times in 16 innings.
"When you play that long, you might as well win it," a weary Baker said. "That's as well-pitched a game as I've probably ever seen."
With one out in the 16th, Alex Gonzalez walked and went to third when Corey Patterson's third single of the game got away from Houston right fielder Brian Hunter for an error.
After a meeting on the mound, Astros manager Jimy Williams brought center fielder Craig Biggio, a former All-Star second baseman, in to play behind the mound as a fifth infielder.
Sosa, who had struck out in five of his six previous at-bats, then made amends before what was left of the crowd of 37,719.
He worked the count to 2-2, then smashed a drive off the glove of second baseman Jeff Kent to drive in Gonzalez.
"The more at-bats I'm getting, the better I'll be able to make an adjustment here and there," Sosa said. "It's going to come, no question. Sometimes with a player like me, people expect you to step to the plate and hit a home run in one at-bat. It doesn't happen like that.
"Today was a great game, especially for a guy like me who has five strikeouts and just keeps fighting and then gets the game-winning RBI."
Players struggled to stay focused in the 4-hour-26-minute marathon, running into the clubhouse to grab something to eat between innings or to seek refuge from a cold, blustery wind that made the long ball a rumor.
The Cubs and Astros combined for 37 strikeouts, but it wasn't just the pitching that was exceptional.
The two teams also combined to produce one of the best defensive games of the season.
Hee Seop Choi's backhand grab of a line drive by Geoff Blum with the bases loaded in the eighth prevented the Astros from scoring. Left fielder Moises Alou threw out Lance Berkman at the plate in the ninth with a perfect, knee-high strike.
Not to be outdone, Houston shortstop Adam Everett took away an apparent single to left with a diving grab against Alou and throwing to second for a force.
Catcher Paul Bako and starter Carlos Zambrano pounced on attempted sacrifice bunts and threw out Houston runners at second in the seventh and eighth innings, respectively.
Patterson saved one, possibly two runs with a running catch in right-center in the eighth.
Ramon Martinez salvaged a force at second after ranging deep into the hole in the eighth.
Eric Karros, who replaced Choi when Baker changed pitchers late in the game, made two stellar pickups of throws in the dirt.
"Most of the time when you win extra-inning games it's because of your bullpen strength and your defense," Baker said. "You can't walk guys, you have to make the playswhich we didand somebody's got to come through with the clutch hit."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times