Starter Ted Lilly did enough to get the Cubs off on the right foot Friday night, but Hunter Pence's RBI double off Bob Howry in the ninth gave the Astros a 2-1 triumph before a crowd of 42,368 at Minute Maid Park.
"Hard to win with one run," manager Lou Piniella said.
Lilly pitched seven strong innings, allowing one run on six hits but was pulled for a pinch-hitter in the eighth after an engaging duel with Astros starter Brian Moehler.
The Astros led off the ninth with Miguel Tejada and Pence hitting back-to-back doubles off Howry to end the game with a bang. Jim Edmonds' two-hop throw to the plate wasn't in time to nail Tejada, who slid past catcher Geovany Soto.
Lilly's only blemish was Carlos Lee's mammoth home run in the seventh, which tied the game 1-1. With Kerry Wood unavailable because of the blister on his right index finger, Howry returned for the ninth inning after getting the final out of the eighth and suffered his third loss in six decisions.
"The good thing was that as far as he hit it, it still only counted for one point," Lilly said. "That's about as good as you can hit it. He's going to do that when you leave balls up to where he can get to it."
While it was only one loss, Piniella was perturbed with the Cubs lack of offense, pointing to their overall inconsistency since the injury to Alfonso Soriano. In their last two games, starters Tim Lincecum and Moehler have held them to two runs on 10 hits over 15 combined innings.
"It's obvious we've been straining and we have some people in the lineup not swinging the bats to boot," Piniella said. "It makes it even a little more difficult. Let's just ride this thing out as far as we can, get [Soriano] back in the lineup and see where we go from there."
One of the players Piniella was referring to was right-fielder Kosuke Fukudome, who went 0-for-4 and is hitting .152 in July. He swung at the first pitch he saw on a first inning flyout and stranded a pair of runners in the fifth after Edmonds' homer gave the Cubs a 1-0 lead.
"He looked a bit like a tired hitter to me—losing his discipline at home plate," Piniella said. "One of his strengths, earlier in the year, was working the count and swinging at strikes. [He has] turned into probably his worst enemy the last two or 21/2 weeks before the [All-Star Game]. He was swinging at a lot of bad pitches. … We need for Fukudome to start swinging the bat."
Second baseman Ryan Theriot empathized with Fukudome, who is going through his first extended slump in the majors after becoming an instant sensation in April and May.
"He'll come out of it, and he'll come out of it strong," Theriot said. "And when he does, I think we'll see what we saw early in the year. I'll tell you what—it's not for lack of preparation or work."
Fukudome declined to talk to the Japanese or American media afterward, a growing trend in the last month. Is the pressure of trying to live up to his early hype starting to get to Fukudome?
Theriot pointed to Fukudome's strong defense as evidence he's not letting his hitting affect his attitude.
"His head is still there, and he'll be fine," Theriot said, before adding two words familiar to all Cubs fans. "I hope."