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Cubs beat Astros again; wild-card lead dwindles

HOUSTON (AP) -- With the Houston Astros three outs from taking a
two-game lead in the NL wild-card race with two games to go, Brad
Lidge couldn't hold on.

Lance Berkman's go-ahead, two-run homer in the eighth inning
wasn't enough. Lidge blew his first save in more than three months,
allowing two runs and four hits in a 4-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs
on Friday night.

"If we had won 10 in a row to get a one-game lead right now,
I'd be happy as all get out," Astros manager Phil Garner said.
"No, I don't like the way that game turned out, but we still
control our destiny."

The Cubs, who won the series opener Thursday night, started the
ninth with three straight hits off Lidge (4-4), who had converted
24 straight save chances since June 11. After Matt Murton and
Jeromy Burnitz hit consecutive singles, Michael Barrett doubled off
the top of the left-field wall to tie the game at 3-all.

"They did a good job hitting mistakes. Obviously, it's a big
disappointment," said Lidge, who has 40 saves. "I felt good, but
I couldn't get on top of my slider. I don't know if it was my
mechanics or not. There's no excuse. I just made bad pitches."

Corey Patterson hit a hard chopper to first, and Berkman
gathered the ball and threw home for the first out. But
pinch-hitter Todd Walker, playing for the first time since hurting
his knee Sept. 23, got a grounder by Berkman for a single that sent
home Barrett with the go-ahead run.

"It's surprising, but he only gave up one decent hit," Garner
said. "The others just rolled through the infield."

Philadelphia (86-74) won 4-3 at Washington and is just behind
Houston (87-73) in the wild-card race.

Roger Clemens (12-8), who skipped his previous turn because of a
sore left hamstring, is the scheduled starter for the Astros on
Saturday, and Roy Oswalt (19-12) is set to go Sunday. If the Astros
and Phillies finish Sunday tied, they would meet in a one-game
playoff Monday at Philadelphia.

Lidge got into trouble at about the same time his predecessor,
Billy Wagner, was closing Philadelphia's victory.

"It was shocking, but again, he's human," said Astros starter
Andy Pettitte, who allowed one run in seven innings.

Ryan Dempster worked the ninth for Chicago and allowed a leadoff
walk to Brad Ausmus. Charles Gipson sacrificed pinch-runner Chris
Burke to second, and Craig Biggio's grounder moved Burke to third.

Dempster retired pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro on a flyout to
right for his 33rd save in 35 chances, his 19th in a row. The Cubs
would finish at 81-81 if they win the final two games.

"It doesn't matter if we're in the playoffs or not, we're
trying to get to .500," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "We've got
something to play for. Guys are still trying to get hits and get
wins."

Berkman's 24th homer -- and 11th in September -- came with one out
but wasn't enough to keep the Astros from wasting another
impressive start by Pettitte.

After Pettitte was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh with
the game tied, the Cubs took a 2-1 lead in the eighth off Chad
Qualls. Neifi Perez had a two-out infield single, and shortstop
Adam Everett bobbled Derrek Lee's grounder for an error.

Nomar Garciaparra doubled to put the Cubs ahead. Lee was thrown
out trying to score after center fielder Willy Taveras, who had
bobbled the ball, threw to Everett for the relay to Ausmus, who
tagged out the sliding Lee.

Taveras led off the Astros eighth with a single off Roberto
Novoa (4-5) and, after Morgan Ensberg fouled out, Berkman hit an
opposite-field shot into the left-field stands. His 11 September
homers tied the team record set by Richard Hidalgo in 2000.

Pettitte, who missed the Astros postseason run last season
because of a torn tendon in left elbow, made his second start in a
row against the Cubs in which he allowed just one run without a
decision. Both were one-run losses. The left-hander had won seven
straight starts before then.

Carlos Zambrano allowed a run and four hits over seven innings,
but missed out on his 15th victory.

The Astros failed to score after Zambrano loaded the bases with
consecutive walks to Ensberg, Berkman and Mike Lamb in the sixth.
Jason Lane swung at the first two pitches, then grounded to Perez
at shortstop.

Lamb, in the starting lineup against the left-hander, put the
Astros ahead 1-0 in the second with his 12th homer.

Chicago tied the game in the sixth when rookie Ryan Theriot,
making his second major league start, doubled and scored on a
sacrifice fly by Lee, who got his 107th RBI.

Game notes
Biggio hit his 603rd career double, 11th on the career list
with Cal Ripken Jr. ... The Astros had a crowd of 41,304 for their
14th sellout this season, 10 fewer than last season. ... Berkman
has 25 walks in September, his high for a month in his career.