LIVE: Lee home run in 9th ties game

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LIVE: Lee home run in 9th ties game

Friday, Sept. 16, 2011
Posted: 10:07 a.m.
Associated PressAlthough the Houston Astros nearly pulled off a stunning sweep over baseball's best team, building on that series could be difficult.

Owners of the majors' worst road record, the Astros open their final trip of the season Friday against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, where they were swept in their last visit.

Houston (51-98) arrives in Chicago after taking two of three from NL East-leading Philadelphia. The Astros fell just short of becoming the first team this year to sweep the playoff-bound Phillies, dropping Wednesday's finale 1-0.

"We played well, and we know this is a learning process for us," said Houston's Bud Norris, who was outdueled by Roy Halladay. "I hope these guys can learn from this, build on it, and we can move forward."

That might not be so easy, however.

The Astros, 23-52 on the road, need to win once on this six-game trip to avoid matching the worst road record in club history, set by the 1967 team. They've lost 27 of their last 34 away from Houston, which includes being outscored 14-7 in getting swept at Wrigley from July 22-24.

A sluggish offense is among the biggest reasons for the team's road woes. The Astros have hit three homers in their last nine away from Houston, and in 16 road games since Aug. 12, the team is averaging baseball's second-fewest road runs at 3.13.

Rookie left fielder J.D. Martinez, who finished the series against Philadelphia 5 for 12 with two doubles, is batting .378 with 11 RBIs in his last 11 home games, but hitting .094 with one RBI in his last eight on the road.

Having to face Matt Garza (8-10, 3.54 ERA) in the opener doesn't seem like it will help Martinez, or any of his teammates, get on track offensively.

Garza owns one of the NL's top home ERAs at 2.64, and in his only outing of the year against Houston on July 24, he gave up two runs and five hits while striking out nine in seven innings of a 5-4, 10-inning victory.

The right-hander allowed three runs and seven hits in seven innings of Sunday's 10-6, 11-inning win over the New York Mets. Since Aug. 14, the Cubs are 5-1 in Garza's starts, but 8-16 when anybody else takes the ball.

Chicago (65-85) returns home after losing to Cincinnati 8-6 in 11 innings on Thursday to drop the final three contests of a four-game series.

"Just what we needed - a 4 12-hour (actually 4:01) game with a day game (Friday)," manager Mike Quade said.

Carlos Pena hit a two-run homer Thursday, and has three home runs and 10 RBIs in his last seven games, but is batting .167 with five RBIs against Houston this year.

Geovany Soto could lead Chicago's offense in the opener. The catcher is 10 for 18 with two homers and six RBIs in his last four games against the Astros, and is batting .421 with two homers in 19 career at-bats against scheduled starter Wandy Rodriguez (11-10, 3.51).

Rodriguez permitted three runs and seven hits in six innings of Saturday's 9-3 win over Washington. The left-hander is 4-2 with a 3.00 ERA in his last seven starts after going 1-4 with a 5.50 ERA in his previous six.

Rodriguez, the only Astros starter with a winning record, has a 5.25 ERA in losing his two starts against the Cubs this year.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

[CUBS TICKETS: Get your seats right here]

Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”