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The Cubs repeatedly have said this spring that almost every game at Wrigley Field seems like a playoff atmosphere.
But expending so much energy this early in the season also can have a negative effect, as evidenced by the Cubs' lackluster 5-0 loss to Houston on Tuesday night before 40,154 at Minute Maid Park.
In theory, it was a showdown between two NL Central rivals who began the season as favorites to win the pennant.
In reality, it turned out to be a sleep-inducing affair in which Roy Oswalt and two Astros relievers dealt the Cubs their sixth shutout loss.
The Cubs fell 1½ games behind division-leading Cincinnati, while the Astros remained two games back.
"It was rather uneventful," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "A lot of them and very little of us. Not a whole bunch to say. We just got beat."
Oswalt (3-3) shut out the Cubs on three hits through seven innings, striking out eight, while relievers Dan Miceli and Octavio Dotel each added a hitless inning to finish it off.
Carlos Zambrano had a mediocre outing, allowing four runs on eight hits in five innings, his shortest stint since April 26 in Arizona.
"The problem was I was dropping my arm too much," Zambrano said. "By the time I figured it out, it was too late."
The Astros came in with a five-game losing streak, dropping from first place to third in the division.
"When they're down, you have to keep 'em down," Baker said before the game. "You know they're not going to be down forever."
It didn't take long to figure out the Cubs were going into an offensive malaise again, a recurring theme this year.
Of their three hits, two were infield singles by Todd Hollandsworth and Moises Alou.
Oswalt continuously threw first-pitch strikes, retiring 13 straight hitters after Paul Bako's leadoff single in the third.
Astros right fielder Orlando Palmeiro, hitting .194 coming into the game, hit a solo home run leading off the second inning.
They added three runs in the fifth on Jeff Kent's RBI single and a two-run homer by Lance Berkman, his 11th of the season.
"He threw strike one to Berkman and didn't get the call," Cubs second baseman Todd Walker said. "The next pitch he has to throw a strike, or somewhat close, and Berkman hit it out of the park. That pretty much put the nail in the coffin for us."
Zambrano was upset at the time but didn't feel the urge afterward to blame the umpires.
"They are human," he said. "And whatever they call
Baker pinch-hit for Zambrano leading off the sixth, with the Cubs trailing 4-0 and Zambrano (4-2) already having thrown 100 pitches.
The two home runs Zambrano allowed matched the number of homers he had given up in his previous eight starts.
Baker shuffled his lineup Tuesday night, using Corey Patterson in the No. 3 hole for the first time this year and dropping Derrek Lee into the No. 7 spot, also for the first time.
Baker said Patterson was a .364 career hitter against Oswalt.
Lee, meanwhile, was 0-for-9 against Oswalt coming in.
But the change in scenery didn't do either much good. Patterson went 0-for-4, while Lee was 0-for-3.
The table-setters, Walker and Ramon Martinez, also continued their recent slumps. Walker went 0-for-4 and is 3-for-25 in his last six games. Martinez was 0-for-4 and is 2-for-25 in his last seven.
The hit-and-miss offense continues its roller-coaster ride. The Cubs were shut out 10 times in 2003 but are more than halfway toward that total with 118 games remaining.