Hope Remains

It's been done before. Teams seemingly left for dead, only to arise and fight their way back into contention like the post-season zombies they are.

The Cubs, 71-72 and 5.5 games back of Wildcard-leading Houston, hope to become one of those teams.

Last year, the Astros had already fired their manager (Jimy Williams) at mid-season and replaced him with the veteran Phil Garner. The Cubs had a chance to finish off Garner and the Astros once and for all in late August at Wrigley Field, only to lose three of four games and be humiliated in front of their home crowd by Garner's team, in particular a smug and understandably confident Roy Oswalt.

The Florida Marlins of course completed a similar resurrection in 2003, which was later capped off at the cruel expense of the Cubs. No need to say anything further in that regard. We'll leave that to history (and the fine folks at FOX).

Cubs manager Dusty Baker was hoping his team could duplicate the Astros and Marlins' unscripted success in similar fashion this season, all the while keeping his job in the process. The latter seemed a foregone conclusion (at least to General Manager Jim Hendry), but it appeared the White Flag had been officially raised when the Cubs traded both Todd Hollandsworth and Matt Lawton to teams with much higher playoff aspirations in late August.

But the month of September, much as it often has in Baker's managerial career, has begun on a positive note with the Cubs winning eight of their first 10 games, all on the road.

And so, on a day when the Cubs' 143rd regular season game of the year 2005 was overshadowed by two things in particular, the four-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 and the Chicago Bears' NFL season opener, there was still baseball to be played.

As such, the Cubs quietly took three of four from the San Francisco Giants, Baker's former team, at SBC Park in their once-a-year trip to the City by the Bay; beating the Giants 3-2 on Sunday.

Strong starting pitching in all four games of the series helped the Cubs gain a game and a half on the Astros over the course of their 10-game road trip's final stop in San Francisco. (The Cubs entered the series seven games back of Houston.) The Astros lost two of three to fellow Wildcard hopeful Milwaukee over the weekend at Miller Park and now lead the Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies by a half-game and a game and a half, respectively. The Cubs, Brewers and New York Mets all have identical records and are 5.5 out in the Wildcard race.

To the Cubs' credit, they swept Pittsburgh to open the road trip and then took two of three from St. Louis before beating up on the Giants over the weekend. The Cubs still have seven remaining games with the Astros, including a four-game series at Minute Maid Park on the final weekend of regular season play, and three with the Brewers.

Cubs pitching allowed nine runs in the four games with the Giants, an average of only 2.25 a night. Carlos Zambrano won his fifth start in his last six outings and 13th game of the season on Thursday, and Mark Prior won his 11th on Saturday. Glendon Rusch pitched well enough to earn a victory in Sunday's series finale, as did Jerome Williams on Friday. Williams was the losing pitcher in a 2-1 loss, and Rusch got a no-decision.

The Cubs' bullpen was also exceptional, as they did not allow a run throughout the entire series. Ryan Dempster recorded three saves against the Giants and improved to 27 of 29 in save chances this season. Dempster has now thrown 13 straight scoreless innings and converted 13 save chances in a row. Michael Wuertz picked up his fifth win on Sunday with former Cubs punching bag LaTroy Hawkins taking the loss.

Matt Murton hit his third home run in his 32nd game with the big league club. Murton is batting .342 (25-for-73) with the Cubs, but remains only a semi-regular fixture in Baker's veteran lineup. He is 6-for-14 since being called up from Triple-A Iowa on August 29. MVP hopeful Derrek Lee's eight-game hitting streak came to an end in the series finale after going 0-for-3. Lee is 11-for-37 (.297) in September.

With Sunday's victory, the Cubs improved to 33-31 in games decided by two runs or less this season. The Cubs finished the year 5-2 against the Giants. Since leaving San Francisco for Chicago following the 2002 season, Baker is 11-8 against his former team.

Next up for the Cubs is a three-game series with Cincinnati (66-76) at Wrigley Field to kick off a seven-game homestand with the Reds and Cardinals. The series begins Monday with all three contests under the lights, each beginning at 7:05 p.m. CDT.

The Cubs are just 5-7 against the Reds this season and were swept in a three-game series the last time Cincinnati visited Wrigley in early August. Greg Maddux (12-11, 4.28 ERA) is scheduled to face Aaron Harang (9-12, 3.60 ERA) in the series opener, which can be seen on Comcast Sports Net Chicago.

The Cubs are 43-21 during the month of September in Baker's three seasons with the club.

Information from the Cubs' Media Relations Office was used in this report.

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