Baby Steps

Slowly but surely, Cubs manager Lou Piniella is seeing signs of his offense coming around, and the Cubs may have taken a step in that direction Thursday in their 8-5 victory at Houston.

Piniella has wanted the Cubs to return to the patient form of last year, when they led the NL in on-base percentage and runs scored.

The Cubs took five walks Thursday, and they also got a big power boost from Alfonso Soriano, who hit two homers.

More important, as far as Piniella sees it, he wants the offense to help give his key bullpen guys a breather. Earlier this week, the Cubs ended a stretch of using setup man Carlos Marmol and closer Kevin Gregg each five times in six days.

One problem is that the Cubs have had few days with their regular lineup together, and that's because of nagging injuries. Milton Bradley missed time with a groin injury, Aramis Ramirez nursed a calf injury, and Derrek Lee has had off-and-on bouts with neck spasms. Those three represent the heart of the Cubs' order.

To top it all off, Geovany Soto is following his Rookie of the Year season with a .162 start.

CUBS 8, ASTROS 5

Soriano hit a solo homer in fourth inning and a two-run shot in the ninth as the Cubs swept the two-game set in Houston. LHP Ted Lilly settled down after giving up two runs in the first inning. He wound up pitching six innings of four-hit, two-run ball.

NOTES, PLAYER NEWS

--RHP Chad Fox, 38, saw his first major league action since last May when he came on to pitch the ninth inning Thursday. Fox had trouble, giving up two hits and three runs in one-third of an inning before being bailed out by Gregg. Recurring elbow problems forced Fox to sit out the 2006 and 2007 seasons before last year's comeback. He opened this season at Class AAA Iowa after going to spring training with the Cubs as a non-roster man.

--Marmol earned his eighth hold of the season. Marmol gave up a leadoff double to Miguel Tejada in the eighth before striking out Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence. Marmol appears to be back in command of both his fastball and his slider, which he had been getting under and "pushing" last week before making adjustments to get on top of the ball.

--Lee missed his second consecutive game because of recurring neck spasms caused by a bulging disk. Piniella expressed hope Lee could play Friday in Milwaukee, but he cautioned that the three-hour plane ride from Houston could cause problems. Micah Hoffpauir replaced Lee and went 2-for-4 with an RBI and a walk.

--Soriano enjoyed the 23rd multi-homer game of his career. His solo shot to deep left-center in the fourth increased the Cubs' lead to 4-2. He hit a two-run homer in the ninth, when the Cubs scored four times. Soriano hadn't homered since April 28.

--CF Kosuke Fukudome, who was 0-for-13 on the recently concluded homestand and sat out Wednesday, was 1-for-4 with a walk and two runs scored Thursday. Fukudome also made a couple of nice catches in center.

--The Sports XChange

MINORS WATCH

NASHVILLE 4, IOWA 2 (CLASS AAA)

At Des Moines, LF Doug Deeds (3-for-4) paced the Cubs' (14-12) offense with a season-high three hits in the loss Thursday. RHP Esmailin Caridad (3-2) started and suffered the loss, allowing two runs and seven hits in seven innings. He struck out two batters and did not allow a walk.

MISSISSIPPI 5, TENNESSEE 4 – GAME 1 (CLASS AA)

At Jackson, Miss., the Smokies fell in 12 innings Thursday. SS Darwin Barney (4-for-6) led the offense with a season-high four hits and three RBI. 2B Tony Thomas (3-for-5) added three hits, including two doubles and a triple. Tennessee collected 12 hits total and used six pitchers in the loss. LHP Jeremy Papelbon (0-1) suffered the loss in relief, allowing the winning run and two hits. RHP Casey Coleman started and received a no-decision, allowing four runs and eight hits in four innings.

TENNESSEE 7, MISSISSIPPI 0 – GAME 2

The Smokies (13-11) collected 13 hits in the victory with five players tallying two hits or more. LF Ty Wright (3-for-4, two runs) continued his hot hitting with three hits and two RBI. Wright has hit safely in 13 of his last 14 contests to raise his average to .292 through 24 games. RHP Jay Jackson (2-3) started and turned in his best outing of the season, tossing seven complete scoreless innings and allowing five hits. He struck out a season-high 10 batters and allowed one walk.

DAYTONA 5, CLEARWATER 2 (CLASS HIGH-A)

At Daytona Beach, the Cubs (13-14) collected 10 hits in the victory Thursday. RF Dylan Johnston (2-for-4), LF Jonathan Wyatt (2-for-4) and SS Starlin Castro (2-for-3) each had two hits, and C Robinson Chirinos (1-for-3, walk) hit his third home run. RHP Dan McDaniel (3-0) started and tossed 5 2/3 scoreless innings for the win, allowing two hits and two walks. He struck out a season-high nine batters.

LANSING 4, PEORIA 1 (CLASS-A)

At Lansing, Mich., the Chiefs (14-12) were held to four hits in the loss Thursday. 2B Ryan Flaherty (2-for-4) paced the offense with two hits. DH Josh Harrison was 0-for-4 to snap a 15-game hit streak. RHP Justin Bristow (0-1) started and suffered the loss, allowing three runs (one earned) in four innings.

--Staff Reports

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