Greg Maddux has begun his finishing kick. He hopes his teammates follow him.
For the second start in a row, Maddux was masterful. He worked seven strong innings on only 70 pitches Tuesday night as the Cubs beat the Houston Astros 4-1 before 31,963 at Minute Maid Park, tying the series at one game apiece.
Maddux earned his 10th victory, the most on the team. It helps his chances to rack up his 18th consecutive 15-win season. He is on track for eight more starts, and he has won five of his last eight in two of the last three seasons. He won four of his last eight a year ago.
While Maddux (10-9) is the only pitcher in history to win 15 this many years in a row, he'd happily sacrifice the streak to see the Cubs salvage some respect before cleaning out their lockers. They had lost 10 of their last 13 before Tuesday, with his complete game against St. Louis on Thursday a welcome break in the losing.
"He pitched a great ballgame," manager Dusty Baker said. "He had them off stride. He threw strike one. He worked the outside part of the plate."
Aramis Ramirez supported Maddux with a 356-foot homer in left-center and two doubles, all off Andy Pettitte (10-9). The victory got the Cubs back within 61/2 games of the Astros in the wild-card race.
But this win, like most wins, had more to do with pitching than anything else. Maddux went further than Baker expected after throwing a season-high 114 pitches five days ago and then turned the lead over to the new and improved bullpen, which has been transformed into a force by Kerry Wood.
While Wood still plans to return to the rotation in 2006, he is giving Baker something he has rarely had in Chicagoa reliable setup man to get the ball to the closer.
Wood's three-batter, two-strikeout work in the eighth paved the way for Ryan Dempster's 17th save. It also gave Wood seven scoreless innings, with only one hit allowed, in six outings since being assigned to the bullpen.
Baker considered allowing Wood to work the ninth inning for a save but decided against it. He hopes he can use Wood in a similar situation, this time in relief of Carlos Zambrano, in Wednesday's series finale.
Dempster gave up a one-out single to Lance Berkman in the ninth, bringing the dangerous Morgan Ensberg to the plate. But Ensberg grounded to Ramirez, who started a game-ending double play.
Baker says Wood has told him he's having fun pitching in relief, but Wood wasn't real convincing.
"I'm having more fun than I thought I was going to have," he said. "Going into it I didn't know what to expect. It's easy to have fun when you're having success."
That takes us to Maddux, who turned in a vintage performance, carving up the Astros with cut fastballs and changeups. Houston hitters complained throughout that umpire Larry Vanover was giving the 315-game winner strikes on pitches that missed the outside corner. Even Brad Ausmus, who was catching Pettitte, went after Vanover after a called third strike in the second inning.
Maddux even helped himself at the plate. He beat out a bases-loaded single with two outs in the second inning. The tapper up the third-base line came on a 1-2 pitch from Pettitte after rookie Matt Murton and Corey Patterson had struck out with the tying run on third.
Maddux retired the last 13 hitters he faced and held Houston scoreless after the second batter of the game. Willy Taveras flared a triple into the right-field corner and scored on Craig Biggio's groundout, with Baker conceding the run.