When the Cubs return to Minute Maid Park in September, Lou Piniella insists the players won't have to take batting practice.
The left-field wall is so inviting, Piniella argued, that some players try to "knock the pumpkins off the train" that runs on a track atop the wall, causing them to pull the ball during the game.
Pumpkins? Aren't those large plastic globes in the caboose supposed to be oranges, symbolizing the orange juice company whose name adorns the ballpark?
Piniella laughed, immediately blaming Ron Santo for informing him they were pumpkins.
Whether they're pumpkins or oranges, the bottom line is the Cubs finally got their offense on track after blowing off batting practice, beating Houston 9-0 to avoid a sweep and maintain their two-game lead over St. Louis in the Central Division.
Ryan Dempster (11-4) tossed eight shutout innings to post a win on the road for the first time in nine starts in 2008. His last road win came June 2, 2006.
"Finally won on the road. Oh, my God, such a relief," Dempster said facetiously. "All the questions can stop now."
Mike Fontenot homered and drove in three runs to pace the offense, earning a chance to get more playing time. Fontenot is hitting .361 in July with four home runs and nine RBIs in only 36 at-bats. That is reminiscent of his hot streak of June 2007, when he hit .397 with three homers and 15 RBIs.
"I've been feeling pretty good," Fontenot said. "It kind of reminds me of that. I just try to keep it going. As long as we keep winning ballgames …"
Fontenot's streak has opened some eyes, including those of Piniella. But Ryan Theriot, who hit .583 during the series and extended his hitting streak to 13 games with a three-hit effort Sunday, was not surprised by the production of his former LSU teammate.
"Everybody on this team knows he can help us," Theriot said. "And he's proven that."
Though Kosuke Fukudome had two doubles, the Cubs could leave Fontenot at second on occasion when Alfonso Soriano returns to the lineup this week, sticking Mark DeRosa in right field and resting Fukudome.
Piniella has indicated he's not planning to platoon Fukudome, but he has to find a way to get Fontenot more at-bats. Piniella spoke to Fukudome before Sunday's game to try to get him to relax and scale back his pregame routine.
Meanwhile, Dempster continued right where he left off Tuesday, when he struck out the side in the ninth inning of the All-Star Game. He wriggled out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the fifth and cruised in the other seven innings. Piniella could have left him in for the ninth to get the shutout, but he wanted Carlos Marmol to get some work.
"I always want to finish games," Dempster said. "But we're up 9-0, and the goal here is to be strong every start out."
Dempster struck out seven and walked one in a 104-pitch performance, putting himself in the race for the NL Cy Young Award with teammate Carlos Zambrano, Arizona's Brandon Webb, San Francisco's Tim Lincecum, Cincinnati's Edinson Volquez and Milwaukee's Ben Sheets.
"Nobody in the game that I've played with works harder than he does," Kerry Wood said. "I saw him out running in Central Park [last week] while the rest of us were getting up with our families. The guy is unbelievable."