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In a season during which breathing has never been easy, the Cubs are finally in a good position to separate themselves from the pack in the National League wild-card race.
They swept Colorado for the first time in Coors Field on Thursday after a 5-1 victory before 38,195 and headed to San Francisco on an upbeat note for a big showdown with the wild-card contending Giants.
Other than manager Dusty Baker's homecoming, Greg Maddux's second attempt at his 300th win, and Sammy Sosa vs. Barry Bonds in a nationally televised Sunday night game, it should be just another weekend at the ballpark for a club that has seen it all.
Behind Mark Prior's pitching and some sterling infield defense, the Cubs moved to 12 games over .500 at 60-48, their high point of the season. They've won eight of their last 10 games and are 4-0 since acquiring Nomar Garciaparra at the trade deadline last Saturday.
In sweeping the Rockies the Cubs may have moved into a higher gear as they head into a nine-game stretch against the Giants, Padres and Dodgers, all of whom are fighting for a playoff spot.
"It just shows how strong our starting rotation is," catcher Paul Bako said. "It was great starting pitching that put us in position to win all three games. We're just happy to have everybody healthy in our rotation. It just adds to the depth of our ballclub."
Winless in his previous five starts, Prior (3-2) threw six shutout innings, yielding six hits while walking two and striking out eight. His last victory came June 25 against the White Sox.
"Personal statistics, wins and losses, everybody at this time of the year puts them aside," Prior said.
Prior is now 4-0 against Colorado with a 1.29 earned-run average in four career starts. He threw a season-high 108 pitches, two nights after Kerry Wood threw 110 against the Rockies. Not only are the two aces back in the rotation, they now appear to be strong enough to allow Baker to increase their pitch limits to last year's levels.
"They're pretty close," Baker said. "Mark still hasn't found his location exactly. That's a lot of pitches in that period of time, unlike Woody, who went eight [innings] in the same amount of pitches. There were some near [strikes] early. If we had gotten those, [Prior] might've gone another inning. But we got all we needed out of him."
Prior put the leadoff hitter on base in four of the six innings he worked but came up with big pitches when he had to and watched his defense sparkle behind him. "Standard, as usual," Prior said. "These guys are awesome."
Aramis Ramirez made a diving stop at third with two on and one out in the third inning, getting the force and saving a run. Derrek Lee made a diving stab in the sixth and threw to second base from his knees to get a force, helping Prior avoid another jam.
"'D-Lee' is probably the best in the National League," Prior said. "The best thing about [pitching for the Cubs] is trusting your defense."
Baker said Prior was "over-amped" early on and "overthrew until he settled down and found his location, found his breaking ball." But both of Prior's walks were to Todd Helton, and he was determined not to give in to the Rockies' best hitter.
"I wasn't going to give myself a situation where he could do what he did to Woody on Tuesday (two-run homer)," Prior said. "I wasn't going to give him anything he could hit."
Rockies starter Jason Jennings came in with a 22-10 career record at Coors, and had outdueled Randy Johnson for wins in each of his previous two starts.
Jennings yielded only three hits through the first six inningsincluding solo home runs by Lee and Corey Pattersonbefore giving up four consecutive singles in the seventh, the last Bako's bases-loaded, two-run single that made it 4-0 Cubs.
Glendon Rusch added an RBI double in the ninth.
The Cubs were one out from recording a shutout before Kit Pellow tripled into the right-field corner off Rusch and scored when Sosa kicked it around for an error.