LIVE: LaHair gives Cubs lead with HR

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LIVE: LaHair gives Cubs lead with HR

Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011Posted: 10:30 a.m.

Associated Press

The Houston Astros are one of three teams that have never lost 100 games. Unless they finish their 50th season on a 12-game win streak, they will no longer lay claim to that distinction.

After suffering their 99th loss in the series opener against the Chicago Cubs, the Astros try to avoid reaching the century mark Saturday at Wrigley Field.

Owner of the majors' worst record, Houston (51-99) has already set a franchise record for losses, eclipsing the old mark of 97 set three times, most recently in 1991. A 100th defeat seems inevitable, and that would leave just Colorado and the Los Angeles Angels as the only franchises without a 100-loss season.

Like so many of their defeats before, the Astros' loss to the Cubs (66-85) on Friday was a little disheartening. Houston rallied to tie the score with two outs in the ninth inning only to lose 4-3 in the 12th, when Marlon Byrd drove in Starlin Castro on a slow-roller down the third base line that replays indicated may have been foul.

That's just the kind of luck the Astros have been experiencing lately. Four of their last five losses have been by one run, and three of those defeats have come in the final at-bat.

"They're tough losses, but on the other hand, you have to look at the positives," Carlos Lee said. "We're playing good baseball. We're playing good games."

Lee, in particular, is playing well.

Matt Garza was one strike from finishing a five-hitter Friday when Lee hit his second home run of the game, a two-run shot that tied it at 3-all. The slugger has hit safely in 22 of 24 games, batting .383 with seven homers, nine doubles and 18 RBIs.

"I've found a position where I feel real comfortable and I'm seeing the ball real good," he said.

Lee hasn't had much success against scheduled starter Rodrigo Lopez (5-6, 5.04 ERA), batting .167 with no homers in 24 career at-bats, but the matchup could turn in his favor.

Lee's 23 homers at Wrigley are third-most among active opposing players, and Lopez has been susceptible to the long ball lately, serving up 11 home runs in his last five starts.

Four of those homers came against Cincinnati on Monday. The right-hander allowed five other hits and five runs in 5 1-3 innings of a 12-8 victory.

Lopez didn't surrender a homer in his last outing against the Astros on Aug. 15, when he gave up three runs in 5 1-3 innings of a 4-3 win.

Henry Sosa (2-4, 5.02) opposed Lopez in that game, allowing four runs and seven hits in six innings, and he gets the ball Saturday.

In his seventh career start Sunday against Washington, Sosa was knocked around for five runs and seven hits - including back-to-back-to-back homers to start the third inning. He was only able to get two more outs in an 8-2 loss.

The rookie right-hander was 2-1 with a 2.00 ERA in his previous three starts.

Geovany Soto doubled twice off Sosa in the last meeting and has fared well against the Astros lately. He hit his 15th homer of the season Friday and is batting .478 with three home runs and seven RBIs in his last five games versus Houston.

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

Cubs can't complete rally against Pirates in series finale

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Gift Ngoepe might not have had the weight of the world on his shoulders but he felt like a continent was counting on him.

Ngoepe, the first African to reach the major leagues, singled in his first plate appearance and Josh Harrison led off the bottom of the first with a home run Wednesday night to lead the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-5 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

Ngoepe was recalled from Triple-A Indianapolis and entered the game in fourth inning as part of a double switch and finished 1 for 2 with a walk. The 27-year-old South African, who signed with the Pirates in 2008 as an amateur free agent, led off the fourth with a hit off winless Cubs ace Jon Lester.

"To accomplish this only for me but for my country and my continent is something so special," Ngoepe said. "There are 1.62 billion people on our continent. To be the first person out of 1.62 billion to do this is amazing."

It was so special that Ngoepe nearly broke into tears when he trotted from the dugout to take his positon at second base.

"I told myself not to cry because I'm in the big leagues and I'm a big guy now," Ngoepe said with a smile. "(Catcher Francisco) Cervelli hugged me and I could feel my heart beat through my chest."

A year after winning 19 games in helping the Cubs win their first World Series title since 1908, Lester (0-1) is still looking for his first victory after five starts. The left-hander was tagged for six runs - five earned - and 10 hits in 5 2/3 innings.

"It's probably the best I threw the ball all year," Lester said. "That's baseball."

Wade LeBlanc (1-0), who pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings in relief of rookie Tyler Glasnow, got the win.

The fifth leadoff home run of Harrison's career keyed a two-run first that included an RBI double by Cervelli. Andrew McCutchen and Phil Gosselin hit run-scoring doubles in a three-run third that pushed the Pirates' lead to 5-1.

After the Cubs got within two runs, Josh Bell gave the Pirates a 6-3 lead with a solo home run in the sixth inning off Lester. The rookie first baseman has reached base in 11 straight games.

Anthony Rizzo's two-run homer deep into the right-field stands in the eighth inning off Daniel Hudson drew the Cubs within 6-5. Tony Watson then got the last four outs for his seventh save in as many chances.

Glasnow remained winless in nine career starts, allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings and requiring 89 pitches to get 10 outs.

Rizzo had four RBIs and Kris Bryant had three hits as the Cubs lost for just second time in eight games while stranding 13 runners. The Pirates won for the third time in nine games.

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

Cubs bullpen finding its form after early-season struggles

It was just over a week ago when Cubs fans were freaking out about the bullpen's struggles in a weekend series with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

It was understandable, given Cubs relievers allowed 11 runs in the course of blowing two late leads to end that three-game sweep at the hand of the Bucs.

But since then, the Cubs bullpen has been fantastic.

In eight games entering Wednesday night's series finale with the Pirates in Pittsburgh, the Cubs bullpen is working on a stretch where they've posted a 1.56 ERA and 0.94 WHIP over the last 28.2 innings.

In that span — in which the Cubs are 6 — relievers have allowed six runs (five earned) while striking out 33 batters and surrendering just one homer.

They've been especially stingy over the last three games, allowing just five baserunners in eight shutout innings, including three straight scoreless frames to close out a 1-0 victory Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Wade Davis has been the anchor at the back end of the bullpen the Cubs were hoping he'd be when they traded Jorge Soler for him over the winter. Davis is a perfect 5-for-5 in save opportunities and has not allowed a run in 9.1 innings, allowing just three hits and a pair of walks in the season's first month.

Setting up in front of Davis, Hector Rondon and Carl Edwards Jr. have combined to allow one run and three hits in 15.1 innings.

Brian Duensing — who started the year on the disabled list after a back issue sapped his spring training — is still searching for a rhythm and has surrendered six runs and 10 hits in 6.1 innings on the season. Over the last week-and-a-half, the 34-year-old southpaw has allowed more runs (three) than the rest of the Cubs bullpen combined.

Take Duensing's numbers away from that same eight-game stretch and the Cubs bullpen has been even more fantastic — 0.73 ERA and 0.81 WHIP.

Of course, it's still not even May yet, so this stellar stretch is just another small sample size. 

But just like that, the Cubs suddenly have a Top 10 bullpen, tied for the Colorado Rockies for ninth in Major League Baseball with a 3.07 relief ERA.