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Cubs magic number: 1
The Cubs entered September in first place for the first time since 1989—a year when all of manager Don Zimmer's off-the-wall moves seemed to work.
Lou Piniella is no "Popeye" when it comes to making decisions with his gut instead of his head, but he counts on his team to be fundamentally sound, especially during crunch time.
So after the Cubs beat Houston 4-3 behind home runs by Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez on a gorgeous Saturday at Wrigley Field, Piniella pointed to the one area that needs some improvement if his team is to live up to his high standards.
"Maybe September is the month where we start hitting the ball out of the ballpark with regularity," he said. "The important thing is we continue to pitch well, [but] our execution the last week to 10 days really hasn't been good.
"We use the bunt as an offensive weapon, not as a defensive weapon. And in these low-scoring games, we need to get some bunts down. It has been this way now since almost the San Francisco series."
Piniella was referring to Mark DeRosa's failure to get a bunt down in the eighth inning with two men on and no outs and the Cubs leading 4-2.
DeRosa's miss led to Ramirez getting picked off second and the inning ended without a run.
Then the Astros pulled close on Carlos Lee's homer off closer Ryan Dempster in the ninth.
Ted Lilly, Rich Hill, Ryan Theriot and Jason Kendall are among those who have botched bunt attempts recently.
"We're in a little bit of a bunting slump, if you've ever heard of that," Piniella said. "It's more concentration than anything else. It's not one person."
The Cubs were able to survive DeRosa's gaffe thanks to starter Jason Marquis' strong pitching, Alfonso Soriano's heads-up baserunning and the homers from sluggers Lee and Ramirez.
Soriano scored from first on Theriot's third-inning double when center fielder Hunter Pence made an errant relay throw.
He tied the game 1-1 and showed his speed is better than believed after his quad injury.
Ramirez broke the tie with a two-run, line-drive homer off Troy Patton in the sixth, his first since Aug. 15 and the first for the Cubs with a man on since Daryle Ward's grand slam Aug. 18.
"I've been here four years, and it seems like the wind is blowing in more than ever," Ramirez said.
"You can't worry about that. You have to get men on base and play small ball sometimes. … Score runs any way you can."
Lee was 3-for-18 on the homestand before hitting a single in the sixth and a homer off Chris Sampson leading off the eighth.
Can a team turn on the power in September after struggling all summer?
"We hope so," Lee said. "It's kind of a groove thing. You're not necessarily trying to hit home runs, but you just get that swing going. It seems like if you hit it good, it just goes up in the air. Hopefully that can happen."
Lee said he laughs at all the theories surrounding his power outage.
"I haven't hit 'em—it's as simple as that," he said. "If there was [something wrong] I could maybe fix it and turn it around."
Marquis allowed two runs in 6 2/3 innings to improve to 11-8 and reduce his ERA to 4.20.
The addition of Steve Trachsel has all the starting pitchers on notice because only four are needed for the postseason if the Cubs make it to October.
Piniella hasn't decided how to use his starters, other than Carlos Zambrano, who will pitch every fifth day.
Some may get an extra day of rest down the stretch.
"I want the ball as much as possible," Marquis said. "I'd like to pitch on three days' rest if I could. Obviously they bring Trax in here, with his veteran leadership, he's experienced in the postseason.
"We're excited to have him and hopefully he can be a great addition to this team.
"Whenever Lou calls on me and the other guys, I think we're willing to do whatever it takes to win."