Sosa, Estes lead Chicago over Cincinnati

CINCINNATI (AP) -- The television screens went blank, and the
Chicago Cubs went out and won.

Sammy Sosa tied Mickey Mantle for 10th place on the career home
run list Wednesday night, and Shawn Estes pitched a four-hit
shutout as the Cubs beat the Reds 8-0 and preserved their one-game
lead in the NL Central.

"You want to play in October, you've got to win," said Sosa,
who started the decisive rally with his 536th career homer. "We
don't have that much room."

Before the first pitch, Cubs players were engrossed in the bank
of television sets in the visitors' clubhouse. They muttered curses
when second-place Houston rallied for a 2-1 victory over San
Francisco, meaning Chicago would have to win again to remain one
game ahead.

Pressure? Not with thousands of Cubs fans in the stands and the
major leagues' most generous defense on the field.

Chicago fulfilled the first requirement for a playoff contender
-- beat up on the downtrodden. The Cubs finish with one more game in
Cincinnati, and three at Wrigley Field against the lowly Pittsburgh

"Especially after seeing Houston win today, we didn't want to
get back into a dead heat with them," said Estes (8-11), who
pitched his eighth career shutout. "Everything's a playoff

"(Manager) Dusty (Baker) has said all along that our hot streak
hasn't even hit yet. Hopefully we're in the middle of it right now,
and we can continue to play this way through the playoffs."

The Cubs haven't been alone in first place this late in the
season since 1989, the last time they won a division title. They
haven't been to the playoffs since they went as the NL wild card in

If they can hold on for four more games, they're headed back.

Estes returned from a bullpen banishment and shut out Cincinnati
for the second straight game. His spot start allowed Baker to push
his more formidable starters back for a needed day of rest.

The Cubs have outscored the Reds 14-0 in the two games, allowing
only six hits.

"Down the stretch here, you're going to win with pitching,"
Baker said. "The last two days have been awesome. You rarely see
back-to-back shutouts."

They've become common in Cincinnati. The Reds have been shut out
eight times since Aug. 8, including consecutive shutouts last month
against San Diego and Arizona.

"He's not the only pitcher to come in here in the last four
weeks and shut us down," said Russell Branyan, who had a single.
"We're struggling."

Sosa led off the third inning with another noteworthy homer in
the Reds' new ballpark. He did his signature hop as his 37th homer
headed for the left-field stands.

Baker mentioned beforehand that Sosa seemed to be trying too
hard, resulting in a 3-for-22 slump. He broke out against
right-hander Josh Hall (0-2), a 22-year-old rookie promoted from

The homer landed in a group of Cubs fans -- no surprise, as the
majority of the approximately 30,000 fans wore blue jackets and
rooted for the visitors. The Cubs then had their way against a
progression of nondescript pitchers who wore numbers 58, 70, 71 and

The Reds helped them along by committing two errors in the third
inning, raising their total to 137, the most in the majors. Paul
Bako's three-run double broke the game open.

Sosa, the 10th batter in the inning, got a frightening flashback
as he made the third out. Reliever Matt Belisle, a 23-year-old
rookie who also skipped Triple-A, threw a fastball that darted just
over Sosa's helmet.

Sosa tumbled to the ground, losing his helmet, and got up
without dusting himself off. He then struck out to end the inning
and flipped his bat away angrily.

It was reminiscent of one of his worst moments this season. The
Pirates' Salomon Torres hit him in the head on April 20, taking a
gash out of his left earflap.

Sosa has had more memorable moments in Great American Ball
Park's inaugural season than the entire Reds' roster. He hit his
500th homer in Cincinnati on April 4, and homered on June 18 in his
return from a seven-game suspension for using a corked bat.

Game notes
The Cubs are a season-high 14 games over .500 (85-72).
They're 17-6 in September. ... CF Kenny Lofton had two hits,
leaving him 9-for-20 in the last five games. ... The Reds have been
shut out 10 times in all. ... SS Barry Larkin had a lengthy and
animated discussion on the field before the game with Bill Reik,
one of the limited partners in Reds ownership. Larkin is upset at
the way the club offered him a take-it-or-leave-it contract
extension for 2004. He turned it down, but is hoping the club
changes its stance and agrees to negotiate.