A pop in the clutch

There's no place more tranquil than an empty Wrigley Field at 10 o'clock on a Sunday morning in September.

Ted Lilly was out throwing a football around in the outfield. Jason Marquis was stretching near the bullpen while listening to his iPod. And the groundskeepers were tending to the field, making sure the bumps were smoothed out on the infield dirt.

It was quite a contrast to the scene that unfolded several hours later, after Derrek Lee's two-run, eighth-inning home run vaulted the Cubs to a 6-5 comeback victory over Houston before a sun-baked crowd of 41,415.

Lee's homer and another solid day by the Cubs' bullpen led them back from a four-run deficit, helping them hold serve in the National League Central, where wins by St. Louis and Milwaukee already were posted on the creaky, old scoreboard.

"What a huge win," manager Lou Piniella said. "That's our biggest of the year. Clutch, clutch by Mr. Lee. We talked the other day about the big guys getting going in crunch time, and, boy, here in September, they've gotten to it."

Lee's eighth-inning blast off Chad Qualls was his second in as many days, giving the Cubs their second straight series victory and leaving them 1 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers and two ahead of the Cardinals.

"It was a rough game out there today," Lee said. "We were fighting and clawing. But to come back and steal the game like that, it'll give us a big lift."

The Cubs stole it thanks to a big diving catch by Jacque Jones to end the eighth, four hitless innings by relievers Michael Wuertz, Kerry Wood, Scott Eyre, Carlos Marmol and Ryan Dempster, and late-inning homers by Matt Murton and Lee.

They did it without Aramis Ramirez, who was ejected for showing up plate umpire Tony Randazzo by tossing down his helmet after a called strike three to end the sixth.

They did it without a great effort by Rich Hill, who continued a disturbing pattern of long first innings by Cubs starters, prompting an early exit after five.

And they did it without any ninth-inning drama from Dempster, who retired the side in order to post his 13th consecutive save. The closer the game, the more focused Dempster appears to be on the mound.

"It definitely ups your concentration level," he said. "Every at-bat means something. Every pitch means something. Every play defensively means something. We're enjoying it.

"At times I'm sure we'd like to be up 10 runs and relax and have fun, but those games will come here and there. For the most part we feel like every time we go out there, every game, that we have a chance to win that day."

After Woody Williams was removed with a 5-1 lead, the Cubs scored a pair of runs in the sixth and pulled to within one on Murton's pinch-hit solo shot off Trever Miller leading off the seventh.

Since his July 27 recall from Triple-A Iowa, Murton is hitting .310 with five home runs in 71 at-bats, giving the Cubs a right-handed complement to Daryle Ward off the bench.

By the time of Murton's homer, everyone at Wrigley knew the Cardinals had beaten Cincinnati 3-2 and the Brewers were on their way to a 7-4 win over Pittsburgh at Miller Park.

While Piniella said the Cubs are only concerned with themselves, he admitted to taking an occasional peek at the scoreboard.

"It is fun to watch up there and see what our competitors are doing," he said. "Plus the other teams in baseball. There's some good races going on all over baseball."

The NL Central race is one of the tightest, and Lee said he believes that could benefit the Cubs in the long run, if they make it into October.

"It can work in your favor," he said. "If we get into the playoffs, this is playoff atmosphere right now. These are big games, and there's a lot of intensity in the stands. I think it does work in your favor going into the playoffs, rather than maybe coasting a little with a huge lead."