Dempster, Cubs closing in again

For the second time in three days, the Cubs knew early in their game that wild-card leaders Houston and Florida had lost.

But after wasting an opportunity to pick up a game two days earlier, the Cubs rallied to beat the Giants 3-2 Sunday, leaving them 5½ games behind the Astros with 19 games remaining.

Neifi Perez's eighth-inning RBI double off LaTroy Hawkins gave the Cubs a 3-2 lead, and Scott Williamson and Ryan Dempster closed it out, with Dempster recording his 27th save and 13th in a row.

After finishing the trip 8-2, the Cubs headed home to begin a seven-game homestand against Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Dempster didn't become the closer until May 11 and was booed at Wrigley Field after blowing his first save opportunity. But he came into Sunday ranked third in the National League in save percentage at .929, filling one of the team's biggest holes.

Hawkins, who was traded to the Giants after the Cubs made Dempster the closer, took the loss Sunday after tying for the league lead in blown saves with nine in 2004.

"Dempster has done an outstanding job, and he's getting more confident," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "Our guys are getting more confident with him in there."

Baker wouldn't call Dempster "a lock" to return as closer. Dempster is a free agent and likely will double his $2 million salary on the open market. But the Cubs believe they can retain him, and Dempster said he wants to return.

"Where and how much are you going to have to spend to get somebody equal or better?" Baker asked. "Can your money better be served in another area? Everybody has a budget. And you have to see who is available."

Baker said he'd like to see most of his bullpen return, and it's likely that Williamson, Will Ohman, Roberto Novoa and Michael Wuertz will be part of the mix in '06.

"You can't just keep changing people," Baker said. "We've got some guys that have matured, and I'd like to see them keep maturing."

Maddux watch

Greg Maddux has four scheduled starts left, including Monday night against the Reds and Saturday against the Cardinals. But with two days off in the final two weeks, Baker said he might skip someone to give Maddux a chance at a fifth start Oct. 1 or 2, the last two games in Houston.

Maddux is three victories shy of notching his 18th straight season of 15 or more wins. He already holds the record with 17 straight.

"If he wins three in a row, that will eliminate [the plan]," Baker said.

Patterson in limbo

Baker hinted he may start Jerry Hairston in center and Matt Murton in left down the stretch, limiting the at-bats of struggling Corey Patterson.

"Our primary focus is to win," Baker said. "Corey is not the primary focus right now. And if we can get Corey straightened out along the way, that's what we'll do."

Murton hit a solo home run off Brett Tomko in the fifth, his first in 22 at-bats against a right-hander.

Home, sweet home

Baker's homecoming showed he's still a very popular figure in San Francisco, even though he has been gone for three seasons.

"I don't feel far removed because this is my home," Baker said. "But the longer you're away from someplace, the more removed you get, plus the more personnel changes they make, the more removed you feel. There aren't too many guys left here (from his last season).

"You can't live your life in the past. Life doesn't stop for any of us. You've got to keep aspiring to do the best you can do."