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Cubs only half-game back of Astros

HOUSTON (AP) -- Mark Prior really wanted to beat the Houston
Astros, and it certainly showed.

Prior, roughed up earlier this season at Minute Maid Park, took
a no-hitter into the sixth inning as the Chicago Cubs moved within
a half-game of the Houston Astros in the NL Central with a 6-0
victory Wednesday night.

"I kind of took this outing personal," Prior said. "I came
down here earlier this year and didn't have a good outing. These
guys have hit me pretty well in the past and it was time for me to
stand up and take control."

Prior (12-5) allowed four hits and struck out nine in seven
shutout innings as the Cubs snapped a three-game losing streak. He
had a no-hitter until Adam Everett led off the sixth with a double.

"We've been hitting the ball really great and I don't think
anybody matches up with our pitching staff, so that's a strong
point for us," Prior said. "That's why, hopefully, we'll come out
on top."

The win was Prior's fourth straight since coming off the
disabled list on Aug. 4 with a bruised right shoulder. He's allowed
just two earned runs in 31 innings for a 0.58 ERA, with 29
strikeouts and three walks in those four starts.

The Astros beat Prior 7-5 on May 23.

"It's the first time since I came back I felt I had my
explosive fastball," Prior said. "Now if I could just get my
curve ball back where it was before I got hurt, I think I'll be
right where I was. The fastball felt great. I was able to pitch
with that all night."

Kyle Farnsworth pitched the eighth and Joe Borowski the ninth to
complete the Cubs' eighth shutout this season.

Aramis Ramirez hit a two-run homer in the fourth off
knuckleballer Jared Fernandez (1-3), and Randall Simon added a
three-run shot in the sixth for the Cubs.

"I hit the knuckleball out and the only way is to stay back
waiting for it," Ramirez said. "When they come out of his hand,
there is no way of knowing where the ball is going."

Prior didn't get into trouble until the seventh, when Jeff
Bagwell and Richard Hidalgo singled with one out. After
pinch-hitter Orlando Merced flied out, Brad Ausmus singled to load
the bases but Everett flied out to end the threat.

"He was throwing that fastball 94-96 in the opening inning and
he's usually at about 91-92," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "I
knew we'd probably have to go get him. Three complete games is a
lot and he has to be ready for St. Louis on Tuesday."

Ramirez gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead in the fourth with his two-run
shot. Of Ramirez's 83 RBI this season, 22 are against the Astros.
Also, five of his 18 homers have been against Houston.

The two runs were all Prior needed.

Prior struck out the first five batters and got Geoff Blum on a
fly to center to end the second inning.

He walked Ausmus to start the third and after Everett struck out
and Fernandez sacrificed, Craig Biggio drove the ball to the
warning track in right field, where Sammy Sosa caught it for the
final out.

Lance Berkman almost beat out a dribbler in front of the plate
to start the fourth and Prior then struck out Bagwell and Jeff Kent
to end the inning. Prior pitched a perfect fifth before giving up
the hit to Everett in the sixth.

"I classify him as a kid who still has to go through a lot of
seasons to learn all the command he needs to have," Kent said. "I
say that with a lot of respect. I think he's going to have better
command of his pitches someday and hopefully that will be after I
retire."

Fernandez pitched 5 1-3 innings, allowed six hits, four runs.
His wild pitch in the sixth scored Tony Womack, starting his first
game for the Cubs since being obtained in a trade with Colorado. He
went 3-for-4.

"We're looking forward to tomorrow," Astros manager Jimy
Williams said. "We didn't get a lot of hits tonight. Their guy was
throwing real good."

Game notes
Kent, who drove in six runs in Tuesday's 12-8 victory over
the Cubs, had his 13-game hitting streak stopped. ... Cubs OF Tom
Goodwin singled in the eighth for his 1,000th career hit. ... Sosa
needs two homers to reach 500 with the Cubs, and join Ernie Banks
(512) as the only players to hit that many with the team. ... The
Astros are 58-2 when leading after eight innings. ... Bagwell needs
two homers to become the 13th player in major league history to hit
30 or more homers in eight straight seasons. ... The Cubs haven't
had a no-hitter since 1972, when Milt Pappas beat San Diego 8-0. He
missed a perfect game when he walked Larry Stahl with two outs in
the ninth.