Cubs fall 1 run short

Playing on an island paradise in June or July is one thing, but playing there during the heat of a pennant race is different matter altogether.

The Cubs could have swept their three-game series in sunny Puerto Rico and come home in first place in the National League Central.

But a late-inning collapse Wednesday night was followed by an offensive meltdown Thursday, leaving them one game behind division-leading Houston after a 3-2 loss to Montreal at Hiram Bithorn Stadium.

Mark Prior's seven-game winning streak was snapped and all their momentum was swept away in less than 24 hours.

Did Wednesday's nightmarish loss have a residual affect on the Cubs?

"It's not like you're not going to lose games," Prior said. "[Wednesday's loss] was unfortunate and today we just didn't play well. I didn't pitch well and you just move on. It'll be nice to get home and sleep in our own beds, be in front of our own crowd and get away from a lot of the distractions."

The Cubs were able to remain on the Astros' heels because Houston lost to Milwaukee, and they have 16 games remaining in a sizzling race that looks like it will go down to the wire.

Trailing 3-0 in the ninth, the Cubs loaded the bases with no outs and finally broke through on Eric Karros' RBI single off reliever Rocky Biddle. Alex Gonzalez followed with a hot grounder to third that resulted in a double play, bringing the Cubs to within a run. But after Randall Simon came up to pinch-hit for Paul Bako, Montreal manager Frank Robinson inserted left-hander Joey Eischen, who retired Simon on a grounder to second to end it.

The pitching matchup looked like a major mismatch coming in. Prior had posted a 1.00 earned-run average in winning his last seven starts, while Expos right-hander Toma Ohka had a 4.71 ERA and was winless in his previous seven starts.

But Ohka cruised through the Cubs lineup while Prior kept getting in and out of jams, allowing three runs on 10 hits in 52/3 innings. It was Prior's shortest stint since he injured his right shoulder on July 11 against Atlanta and marked the second straight start he has given up 10 hits after not yielding double-digits in hits in his first 25 starts.

"I didn't get the job done," Prior said. "I'm not going to make any excuses."

The game was scoreless in the fifth when Orlando Cabrera doubled with one out to bring up slugger Vladimir Guerrero, who had been 0-for-7 in the first two games of the series. Guerrero singled sharply to right and Sammy Sosa's throw home sailed wide and to the right of the plate, allowing Cabrera to score easily.

The Expos added two more in the sixth on Brad Wilkerson's RBI double and Cabrera's ground-rule double, his third extra-base hit of the afternoon.

"The guy that killed us was Cabrera," manager Dusty Baker said. "He killed us [Wednesday] and today. He wasn't swinging very well before we came in here, but he was swinging a hot bat the last couple of days. Anytime someone is swinging hot in front of Guerrero, that makes it hard for you."

The Cubs play three sub-.500 teams the rest of the way, but after a disappointing finish in San Juan, the supposedly cushy schedule doesn't seem so comforting.