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Blazing fastballs key Zambrano's effort
Still throwing 98 m.p.h. in the ninth inning, Carlos Zambrano turned the tables on a Houston team built around powerful pitching.
Zambrano and closer Ryan Dempster combined on a three-hitter as the Cubs denied Roy Oswalt his 15th victory and inched closer to the action in the National League's wild-card race. The 4-2 victory in the deciding game of the series Wednesday night moved the Cubs within 5 1/2 games of Houston, which now shares the top spot in the wild-card standings with Philadelphia.
"We had two great guys pitching," Cubs catcher Michael Barrett said of the starters. "They were both getting ahead of hitters. I don't think I've ever seen a game where both guys got to 0-2 so quick."
Oswalt had 11 of the Cubs' first 17 hitters in 0-2 holes but trailed all night. The Cubs took the lead on a first-inning sacrifice fly by Aramis Ramirez and added to it with solo homers by Zambrano in the third and Nomar Garciaparra in the fourth.
Zambrano, bothered by a stiff back in his two previous starts and a cold Wednesday, was in trouble only in the fourth inning. A leadoff double by Craig Biggio started a two-run inning, including an unearned run that scored on a Garciaparra throwing error.
Manager Dusty Baker gave Zambrano (10-5) a shot at a complete game but pulled him after he walked Morgan Ensberg on a tight 3-2 pitch, clocked at 98 m.p.h., in the ninth inning.
Things got a little dicey when the Cubs twice failed to turn game-ending double plays, once when umpire Sam Holbrook said Neifi Perez had come off second base before taking the throw from second baseman Todd Walker. But Dempster escaped by getting Brad Ausmus to hit a bases-loaded grounder to Perez.
"We actually gave them five outs in that inning," Baker said. "It worked out, but usually when you give guys extra outs, it comes back to haunt you. Maybe the worm has turned for us."
Since suffering through their second eight-game losing streak of the season, the Cubs are 5-2. They took three of four against St. Louis before winning the series in Houston, where 29,978 watched Wednesday.
Though the Cubs made up ground the last two nights, five teams remain ahead of them in the wild-card chase.
"We feel good, but it's no secret we've been all over the map this year," Walker said. "It's just a matter of who gets hot. With so many teams [involved], somebody's going to get hot. Let's just hope it's us."
For the Cubs to make a real run, they need more pitching performances like they got from Zambrano and Greg Maddux.
"The pitching the last two nights was great," Baker said. "I really thought [Tuesday] night's game was the biggest, for Greg to go out and give us a chance in the series after we had lost a bad game in the opener."
Zambrano said he wasn't limited by his back or the fever he was running. His weak condition might have helped him hit the home run.
"My back's been giving me trouble, so I wasn't going to go up there and swing hard," he said. "I thought maybe I'd try to get a little blooper or something.
When I try to hit a home run, I don't hit anything."
Baker is pleased with the turnaround but continues to watch the season record as much as the wild-card standings. The Cubs climbed back within three games of .500.
"We make up a game in the wild card and we get closer to .500," Baker said. "Once we get back to .500, we can go from there. We've done it four or five times this year."