It's OK to exhale —just a bit

Manager Lou Piniella has fewer worries now as the Cubs head into the final 12 games of the season with a one-game lead over Milwaukee.

His team has a little momentum after beating the Cardinals 4-2 Sunday at Busch Stadium, knocking the defending world champions seven games back in the NL Central.

His closer is back in the saddle after a rough week. His hitters stranded 14 runners Sunday but managed to get by. And his four-man rotation is starting to step up at the right time.

"The only thing that will concern me is if I get a heart attack," Piniella said with a laugh.

Though the Cubs are the leading cause of heart palpitations in Chicago these days, they're hanging on to their slim lead with some unlikely heroes and some big-time plays.

Matt Murton's three-run homer off the left-field foul pole ignited a four-run third inning, Geovany Soto contributed four hits and Jason Marquis and the bullpen made it hold up. Even rookie Sam Fuld jumped into the picture, making a leaping catch along the right-field foul line in the eighth inning to foil Scott Spiezio with a man on base.

Only a couple of weeks ago, the Double-A outfielder thought he'd be at his New Hampshire home, watching the Cubs on TV.

"I didn't know what to expect," Fuld said. "It's obviously an honor, and I'm having a great time up here."

The Cubs finished a difficult 11-game stretch consisting of a 10-game road trip and a makeup game against St. Louis at Wrigley Field with a 7-4 record. They, in effect, knocked the Cardinals out of the race.

"It's big because it knocks them out of semi-contention," Marquis said after allowing one run in 6 1/3 innings. "It's tough to climb through two teams this late in the season."

Marquis (12-8) left with a 4-0 lead in the seventh before Carlos Marmol allowed his inherited runner to score and got into his own predicament, loading the bases on two-out walks to Rick Ankiel and Albert Pujols.

Bob Howry got out of the jam by inducing Jim Edmonds to pop out to first, then gave up an RBI single to Skip Schumaker in the eighth to make it a 4-2 game. But Ryan Dempster converted his second save in as many days, momentarily quieting his critics.

Does Dempster feel like Rex Grossman, where every mistake is magnified?

"Other than an occasional boo here or there, I don't pay attention," he said. "I don't listen to talk radio, and I don't read a whole lot. I just worry about trying to come in every day and prepare to pitch. I figure if I do my job, those questions will kind of answer themselves."

Getting contributions from backups like Murton and Soto is what makes the Cubs so tightly knit.

"The last couple of years, we weren't in this position," Murton said. "This is what you play for, because it really locks you in as a player."

Soto went 4-for-5 and the Cubs rapped out 13 hits, giving Piniella what he called "food for thought" in considering whether to let the rookie share playing time with veteran Jason Kendall down the stretch.

At one point in the sixth inning, Soto went out to the mound and put his arm around Marquis, acting like the veteran soothing the mind of a kid pitcher.

"At this point I feel like I can go out there like a leader and tell him to calm down," Soto said.

It worked. Marquis got Spiezio on a grounder to escape the threat.

Now Piniella believes the schedule is in the Cubs' favor.

"I felt this whole thing was in Milwaukee's favor until we got through today," Piniella said. "We had more road games, and we got the doubleheader here. Now all of a sudden we've got some night games. We've got a few days off finally. Milwaukee's had days off, and now they've got to play.

"After today the balance of the thing at least switches into our [favor] a little more–six games at home and six on the road. You've still got to play, but this was a tough stretch of games for this team, and it wasn't easy."