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From a "nightmare" to an "awesome feeling." That's the difference one year--and good health--has made to Cubs left fielder Moises Alou.
Plagued by injuries last year, his first as a Cub, Alou added another memorable moment to his turnabout season Wednesday with a three-run homer in the fifth inning. It was the difference in the Cubs' 6-4 victory over the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field.
The win moved the Cubs 1 1/2 games behind first-place Houston in the NL Central.
"Last year was a terrible year for me and for the team," Alou said. "I was hurt most of the year. It was a nightmare. Now I feel great . . . awesome."
All the Cubs felt awesome after Alou lifted Dan Miceli's 2-2 pitch over the left-field bleachers. Houston had scored twice without a hit in the top of the fifth to take a 4-3 lead, and Miceli took over for starter Jeriome Robertson after Kenny Lofton and Alex Gonzalez opened the Cubs' fifth with singles.
Miceli struck out Sammy Sosa but hung a forkball to Alou as Lofton and Gonzalez were attempting a surprise double steal.
"It was a forkball, and it stayed right over the plate," Alou said. "I got lucky because I thought the wind had a chance to take it foul."
Numbers show the difference between a healthy and a hurting Alou. In 2001, his final year in Houston, he hit .331 with 27 homers and 108 RBIs. Last year he dipped to .275 with 15 homers and 61 RBIs. After Wednesday's performance he's hitting .292 with 18 homers and 75 RBIs.
Alou's Waveland Avenue blast helped fans in the capacity crowd of 39,631 forget the boos they had aimed Shawn Estes' way when he was removed as the Cubs fell behind 4-3 in the top of the fifth.
Estes insisted he had good stuff, and manager Dusty Baker and catcher Damian Miller agreed. The problem was control. Estes walked five in his 4 2/3 innings and fell behind 2-0 or 3-0 to eight of the 23 hitters he faced, retiring only two of them.
Richard Hidalgo homered on a 3-1 pitch in the second. Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensberg both walked and scored in the fifth. A walk to Hidalgo forced in another run.
"There's only so much you can tell a pitcher when he's falling behind like that," Miller said. "Mostly you tell him to try to relax. Usually he's trying to be too fine instead of trusting his stuff."
Estes fell behind Biggio and Ensberg 3-0 and walked both of them to open the fifth. He struck out Jeff Bagwell but then got a bad break when Gonzalez made a nice play on Jeff Kent's grounder to the hole and tried to go to third to force Biggio.
Aramis Ramirez was late getting to the bag and Gonzalez's throw sailed past him for an error, leaving the bases loaded with one out.
Estes then walked Hidalgo on four pitches to force in the tying run. Mark Guthrie relieved and gave up a sacrifice fly to Lance Berkman, giving the Astros a 4-3 lead that survived until Alou's at-bat.
"The umpire [Mike Fichter] was consistent, but he didn't give the inside pitch," Estes said.
The fifth-inning error, charged to Gonzalez, also was costly.
"Instead of two out and runners on first and second, the bases were loaded with one out and Hidalgo up," Estes said. "Hidalgo is strong. He homered before. I tried to keep the ball down but not leave anything over the heart of the plate, a pitch he could hit out of the ballpark."
Guthrie (1-3) collected his first win of the year for pitching two-thirds of an inning. Successors Antonio Alfonseca, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Remlinger and Joe Borowski were sharp and had excellent control, blanking the Astros on three hits over four innings with no walks and five strikeouts. Borowski earned his 22nd save.