Ramirez blasts two against former team


PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Cubs manager Dusty Baker all but guaranteed a
victory before Sunday's game. Of course, most managers would feel
that way with Mark Prior pitching.

Prior gave the Cubs the dominating start they needed, striking
out 14 in 7 2-3 innings as Chicago shook off two straight damaging
losses to beat the Pirates 4-1 Sunday and closed within a half-game
of the NL Central lead.

Aramis Ramirez, traded by the Pirates to the Cubs two months
ago, hit two solo homers to help give Chicago a split in the
four-game series.

"That was how I felt. I say what I feel. I felt we were going
to win," Baker said of his pregame comments. "We were due to win
... and with the guy we had going out there, it really wasn't that
tough to make that prediction."

The Cubs missed chances to gain ground on first-place Houston by
losing 10-6 in the second game of a doubleheader Friday night and
8-2 Saturday night. They didn't Sunday, when the Astros lost 6-4 in
St. Louis.

The Cubs also cut their deficit in the NL wild-card race to 1{
games as both the Marlins and Phillies lost. Still, it wasn't as if
they were hanging on every pitch of the out-of-town games -- their
clubhouse TVs were tuned to two NFL games.

"We've got to win our games and don't worry about the games
that are out of our control," Mark Grudzielanek said.

Prior (17-6) was in control from the start against a team that
has played well down the stretch against contenders, scoring 27
runs in the first three games of the series. He gave up six hits --
three in the eighth -- and retired 15 in a row at one point, nine on

"We needed a win, so we got it," Prior said. "I enjoy
pitching in close games, whether it's in April or when the season's
on the line. It's all part of being a competitor."

With the Cubs up 4-0, Abraham Nunez doubled with one out in the
eighth and scored on Tike Redman's single. Prior, appearing to
tire, was lifted after Jack Wilson's walk and Jason Kendall's
single loaded the bases. But Mike Remlinger struck out former Cubs
infielder Jose Hernandez -- Hernandez's 174th strikeout.

"It was a big out, but they're all big outs," Remlinger said.
"We needed to win today, because we didn't play as well as we
needed the last two days."

Joe Borowski pitched the ninth for his 32nd save in 36 chances.

Prior has become a prime contender for the NL Cy Young Award
with an exceptional second half, going 9-1 in 10 starts since
coming off the disabled list Aug. 4. He has lost only once since
July 11, pitching two complete games and at least eight innings
three other times.

He reached double digits in strikeouts for the 13th time in his
career and the seventh time this season.

"I don't like to give pitchers much credit, but he's really
good," Redman said. "That ball jumps right on you ... it's just
on you before you know what's happening. Then he mixes in that
great curveball and you're basically just up there guessing and

The Cubs, shut down Saturday night by rookie Ryan Vogelsong,
jumped on another rookie, Oliver Perez (4-10), for four singles in
a span of five batters to take a 2-0 lead in the first. Ramirez,
who drove in three runs, and Eric Karros had RBI singles.

"When they score one or two runs, I look at it as that's all
I'm going to get and it's my job to keep it there," Prior said.

The left-handed Perez, apparently bothered by a blister on his
pitching hand, was lifted after giving up five hits and walking two
in 1 2-3 innings.

"I know this was a big game, and I wanted to pitch better than
this," Perez said.

Nelson Figueroa came on to give up Ramirez's solo homer in the
second -- Ramirez's 100th RBI of the season -- and Ramirez homered
again leading off the sixth against Joe Beimel.

Ramirez has more homers (14) in two months with the Cubs than he
did in 3{ months with the Pirates (12).

Game notes
The Pirates drew 1,636,751 in their third season in PNC
Park, down from 1,784,993 in 2002 and 2,436,139 in 2001. They went
12-6 in the final 18 home games and 39-42 overall at home. They
have yet to have a winning record at home since PNC Park opened ...
The Cubs open a three-game series Tuesday in Cincinnati. They have
six games remaining, including a three-game series in Wrigley Field
next weekend against the Pirates, while the Astros have seven left.
... Ramirez has 100-plus RBIS for the second time in three seasons.
He had 112 with Pittsburgh in 2001. ... Cubs pitchers have 1,352
strikeouts, breaking the previous major league record of 1,344 they
set two years ago.