Atmosphere tough to stomach for Cubs

Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt has been Public Enemy No. 1 to the Cubs since hitting Michael Barrett in the back last year.

Fittingly, after Roger Clemens and the Astros beat the Cubs 3-1 Saturday at Minute Maid Park, Oswalt will face Greg Maddux on Sunday with a chance to put his team into the postseason.

With a one-game lead over Philadelphia, Houston clinched a wild-card tie with the Phillies and will capture the playoff spot outright with a victory Sunday.

"It's amazing," Clemens said. "Now we get to sit back and watch Roy do his thing. I'm sure Greg will be on top of his game. They can play with that sense of looseness, and we just need to be aggressive as normal."

Clemens (13-8) allowed one run in seven innings, ending his regular season with a career-best 1.87 earned-run average and capturing his seventh ERA title. Amazing is perhaps the only way to describe the season of a 43-year-old power pitcher who briefly retired two years ago.

"I was pulling for [retirement]," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.

Jerome Williams fell to 6-10, and the loss assured the Cubs of a sub-.500 record and a fourth-place finish. For Derrek Lee the ending is hard to digest.

"It's tough to be playing these games," Lee said. "You feel the excitement of a playoff atmosphere, and you know that after [Sunday] we're not going to be in it. It's tough, but hopefully next year we can turn it around."

After signing closer Ryan Dempster to a three-year, $15.5 million extension Saturday, general manager Hendry probably will have to lock up Lee by spring training because Lee's three-year deal ends in 2006.

Lee could spark a bidding war if he goes on the market, and though he hopes to be a Cub for a long time, he declined to speculate on whether that scenario would come to fruition.

"I don't know, we'll see," he said. "I like Chicago and it's a great place to play."

Some players refuse to negotiate once the season begins, but Lee said he wouldn't put a deadline on when the Cubs need to re-sign him.

"It doesn't matter to me one way or the other," he said. "I just want to play. All the other stuff takes care of itself."

Lee, who's hitting .337, will capture his first batting title. Along with 46 home runs and 107 RBIs, he is experiencing one of the greatest seasons any Cubs hitter has had. In a year when almost nothing went the Cubs' way, he also became a clubhouse leader and someone to build the team around.

"If leadership is being there when the team needs you, I think I did that," he said. "I'm proud of that, and I hope I can do it again next year."