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Dressed in street clothes with a phone in his hand an hour after beating Houston on Wednesday night, Cubs right-hander Greg Maddux walked onto the mound of an empty Minute Maid Park and went through his pitching motion one last time.
His workday was long over, but Maddux wasn't done being Maddux.
The 38-year-old veteran earned his 295th career victory in a 4-1 victory over the Astros, giving the Cubs a chance Thursday for their first four-game sweep in Houston in the 42 years of their rivalry.
Maddux allowed one run on eight hits in 6 1/3 innings, striking out five and walking none. It was a sharp reversal of his last performance at Minute Maid on May 26, when he surrendered three home runs in a 7-3 loss. After giving up a first-inning run on Lance Berkman's RBI single, Maddux (6-5) didn't allow another runner past first base.
"This ballpark is short down the lines, but there's a lot of room if you keep it in the gaps in center," Maddux said.
"I only know one way to pitch, whether it's Coors Field or Wrigley with the wind blowing in."
The Cubs won their fifth straight on the trip and their sixth in the last seven games.
"Our guys tend to rise to the occasion," manager Dusty Baker said. "We play to the competition."
Missing several key contributors, the Cubs have managed to survive quite nicely.
"It shows the character of our ballclub," catcher Paul Bako said.
"A lot of it has to do with Dusty and his positive attitude and positive outlook. He keeps us upbeat a lot."
Though Sammy Sosa has been out for 29 games with a strained back, the Cubs are ranked fourth in the National League in runs scored and first in home runs. They have gone most of the season without second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and the last six weeks without shortstop Alex Gonzalez, leaving them dead last in double plays, but they still lead the league in fielding.
Despite missing Mark Prior for the first nine weeks and Kerry Wood for the last five weeks, they still are ranked first in starting pitching with a 3.49 earned-run average.
The only major concern has been the bullpen, which ranked 12th in the league Wednesday with a 4.43 earned-run average but contributed 2 2/3 innings of scoreless relief. Take away the performances of Joe Borowski, Andy Pratt and Michael Wuertz, three struggling relievers who are no longer on the roster, and the bullpen's ERA is pared to 3.05.
The Cubs broke through against Tim Redding in the seventh. Corey Patterson reached on a bunt single, took second on an errant throw by catcher Brad Ausmus and then scored on Bako's double. Bako came around on Todd Walker's sacrifice fly to put the Cubs ahead 2-1.
They added two more in the eighth off Dan Miceli on Todd Hollandsworth's run-scoring triple to the hill in center and Derrek Lee's sacrifice fly. Mike Remlinger pitched 1 1/3 innings of hitless relief and LaTroy Hawkins posted his seventh save with a perfect ninth.
"Pitchers on this team keep us in the game," Maddux said. "This team can win a lot of close games because of the pitching it has. You know the guys are going to hit."