The Cubs headed to Houston on Sunday night for one last chance to get back into the thick of the wild-card race, knowing their fate is in their own hands.
After Sunday's 5-4 victory over St. Louis, the Cubs were 61/2 games behind the wild-card-leading Astros with five teams ahead of them and 44 games remaining.
Manager Dusty Baker maintained the Cubs don't have to sweep the Astros to avoid being dismissed from the race.
"You want to win two out of three or sweep, preferably," Baker said. "You've got time to win one game and go into September in decent position. We're not in a position where we have to sweep right now."
Jose Macias' two-run pinch-single off Matt Morris in the sixth inning helped Mark Prior earn his first win since July 19, and Kerry Wood struck out four in two innings as the Cubs took three of four from the Central Division-leading Cardinals.
"Now I think he's real comfortable where he's at," Prior said of Wood's unfamiliar role as a relief pitcher. "It makes it real easy when you're throwing 98, 99 [m.p.h.]. He's throwing the ball extremely well and it's fun to see him out there doing what he loves to do."
Now come the Astros and a fork in the Cubs' road. If they fail to make a dent in the Astros' lead, potential free agents Nomar Garciaparra, Jeromy Burnitz, Todd Walker, Matt Lawton, Todd Hollandsworth and Ryan Dempster are among those who could be gone after 2005.
Despite their recent struggles, general manager Jim Hendry doesn't anticipate an extreme makeover of his roster this winter.
"Some of it is still up for grabs," he said. "But collectively we like our core group. That's why we tried to tie some guys up, and that's why some of our better players are still in their 20s. Even if we don't do well the rest of the year, it's not like it's a massive overhaul that's needed.
"Obviously we have to make the right four or five decisions, and hopefully make a trade or two. Hopefully get involved in some free-agent work and really just kind of stay on top of what areas we were weaker in than we thought we were going to be."
That would seem to include the bullpen, the three outfield spots, shortstop, starting pitching and the bench. The Cubs should have plenty of money to spend, having already lopped nearly $30 million in combined salaries since February with the departures of Sammy Sosa, Mike Remlinger, LaTroy Hawkins and Joe Borowski.
One player assured of returning is Prior, who walked four men and threw 123 pitches in six innings but managed to get the win. While warming up in the bullpen before Sunday's game, Prior had Matt Lawton stand in front of the plate with a bat in his hand to emulate a left-handed hitter, followed by pitching coach Larry Rothschild, emulating a right-handed hitter, but without the bat.
The unorthodox warmup session paid off. Staked to a 3-1 lead on a two-run homer by Corey Patterson and a solo blast by Lawton, Prior gave up a bases-loaded RBI single on a 2-2 pitch to So Taguchi. He then watched Aramis Ramirez fail to convert a potential double-play grounder for the third time in two games, allowing the tying run to score.
But Macias' two-run single in the bottom of the sixth put the Cubs ahead again, and Wood was dominant in his first two-inning relief stint, striking out three of the last four hitters he faced.
"That was as good a seventh and eighth as I've ever seen," Baker said.
Dempster gave up an unearned run in the ninth but induced Albert Pujols to ground out with the tying run on second to end the game.
"It's kind of been a weird 10 days to two weeks," Prior said. "We've lost a lot of games then come in and take three of four from the best team in the game. Obviously everyone knows the talent and ability are there. We've just got to put it together, and I think we'll have a good [series] down in Houston."