HOUSTON—When Houston's Luke Scott doubled into the gap in right-center field with two outs in the ninth Thursday night, the Cubs appeared ready to blow a one-run lead.
But Corey Patterson and Jose Macias made perfect throws to nail pinch-runner Charles Gipson as he tried to score from first, and Henry Blanco survived a head-on collision to preserve a 3-2 victory.
Glendon Rusch said.
Houston's wild-card playoff lead over Philadelphia was sliced to two games with three remaining, while the Cubs (78-81) kept alive their hopes of finishing at .500.
Beforehand, general manager Jim Hendry downplayed the Cubs' lack of fundamentally sound baseball.
"We didn't play great baseball every day or we wouldn't be where we're at," Hendry said. "At times we've looked very good. We played some of the better teams in the game head up or better than head up. Whenever things go wrong in this sport, there are always avenues to pass blame or point fingers."
Hendry said manager Dusty Baker "will probably put even a stronger emphasis in spring training on trying to get out of the gate better."
"St. Louis has done a wonderful job of being way ahead of everybody by the middle of May," Hendry said. "But I know we worked on a lot of the things last spring. It doesn't mean that all these guys go out and do it. Guys have been playing in the big leagues for seven or 10 years, all of a sudden, some days you didn't get the bunts down, or we blew a rundown play.
"It's a little bit unfair to say that happened because we didn't work on it. Sometimes the failures, especially at the home games, we found ways to lose games that are not seen on a regular basis. A lot of things in this game make you look like you're not preparing properly. Sometimes you are [prepared] and it still happens."
Hendry figures to get a salary budget of about $100 million next year. Because rookies Matt Murton and Ronny Cedeno are likely to be regulars in the outfield and infield, respectively, Hendry should have enough money to land a free-agent shortstop with speed, a power-hitting outfielder and a 200-inning workhorse.
Hendry confirmed he will look into obtaining another starter to join Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, Greg Maddux and perhaps Kerry Wood in the rotation. Rusch and Jerome Williams may be in the mix, but Rusch can decline a $2 million option and Williams has lacked consistency. The Cubs can't count on Wood's shoulder being sound by April and figure to be in the hunt for a free-agent pitcher such as Kevin Millwood, A.J. Burnett or Matt Morris.
"We're very optimistic Woody will be fine, but in the perfect scenario, if you can find somebody else to make the staff deeper we possibly would," Hendry said. "Some of that will depend on how we read Wood's rehab over the next couple of months, and maybe what Glendon does."
Rusch finished with a winning record at 9-8 and probably will seek greener pastures.