Cubs get back into NL Central race behind Hill, Dempster

Cubs 3, Astros 2

HOUSTON (AP) -- The Chicago Cubs got just the kind of win they needed for their playoff drive.

Rich Hill allowed three hits over seven innings and the Cubs moved into a tie with Milwaukee for the NL Central lead with a 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros on Wednesday night.

Hill (9-8) struck out seven and walked three as the Cubs won for the third time in seven games and snapped a four-game losing streak at Minute Maid Park. They entered the day one game behind the Brewers, who lost 7-4 at Pittsburgh.

"This type of game really should get us on a roll," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "You have to think that the worm has turned. You've got to start feeling like things are going to go your way."

Ryan Dempster, who lost Tuesday's game in the 11th inning when he gave up a walkoff triple, earned his 26th save in 29 chances despite allowing a run in the ninth inning.

Cliff Floyd hit a solo homer in the second and tripled in the fourth off Houston starter Matt Albers (4-8). Ryan Theriot had two RBIs, snapping an 0-for-14 stretch with an infield single that scored Floyd.

The Cubs came in averaging 3.24 runs per game when Hill pitches, the lowest run support for any starter in the majors. Hill didn't need much help in this one, baffling every Astro but Mark Loretta, who had three hits, two against Hill.

"I'm really proud of the way our young left-hander pitched," Piniella said. "It was a pressure game for him to pitch in. And he responded as well as or better than you can expect."

The 27-year-old settled down after giving up a hit and two walks in the first two innings. He had a quick chat with catcher Jason Kendall in the dugout, then gave up only Loretta's single and a walk to Craig Biggio between the third and sixth innings.

"After that second inning, I regrouped and just talked with Jason," Hill said. "He said, 'You're fine. Just keep throwing the ball the way you're throwing it."

Hill's biggest mistake came in the seventh, when Loretta led off with a homer into the left-field porch, his third of the season and first since June 29. Piniella visited the mound and gave Hill a quick pep talk.

"I said, 'That's part of the game," Piniella said. "I said, 'You're throwing the ball well. Stay composed, stay within yourself, trust your stuff. Give me this inning and this will be it."

Hill then struck out Ty Wigginton and Humberto Quintero and got Luke Scott to fly out.

"Every game is big," Hill said. "You go out there and leave it all out there. As long as you go out there and throw the ball with conviction and confidence, things will work themselves out."

The Astros have lost six of their last seven games and nine of 14 since Cecil Cooper replaced Phil Garner as manager on Aug. 27. With the loss, Houston is guaranteed to finish below .500 for the first time since 2000 and for just the second time since 1991.

Loretta led off the ninth with a single and was replaced by pinch-runner Josh Anderson. Mike Lamb tripled to right-center to make it 3-2. Dempster then got Scott, who had the game-winning hit Tuesday, to ground out. He walked pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro then Munson grounded into a double play that ended it.

"We needed that," Floyd said. "We needed that bad."

Floyd led off the second with a homer into the upper deck in right field, his sixth of the season. Mark DeRosa and Kendall followed with singles before Theriot's sacrifice fly made it 2-0.

Hill walked Loretta and Wigginton to open the second, then struck out four of the next seven Astros he faced.

Floyd led off the fourth with a triple that rookie center fielder Hunter Pence misjudged. Floyd scored on Theriot's high-bouncing infield single to put Chicago up 3-0.

Loretta reached on an infield single with one out in the fourth, but Wigginton grounded into a double play. Hill needed only 11 pitches to retire the Astros in order in the fifth.

Game notes
The Cubs have won five of the last six games Hill has started. ... Floyd's triple was his first since May 21, 2006. ... Albers started in place of rookie LHP Troy Patton, who was scratched Tuesday with a sore shoulder. ... Pence led off the game with a single to center, Houston's only other hit off Hill.