Astros spoil Sosa's return
Not even Sammy Sosa could save the Cubs this time.

The return of the Cubs' right fielder from the disabled after toenail surgery was lost in a Houston Astros blitz of starting pitcher Shawn Estes and a near-flawless performance from Houston's Wade Miller.

The Astros pulled to within a game of the Cubs in the National League Central with a 9-1 victory Friday before a crowd of 36,687.

Miller (3-6) tossed a two-hitter, facing just 30 batters, striking out 14 and allowing only a fifth-inning home run to Corey Patterson.

The rest of the Cubs' offense was feeble.

In the third inning, Damian Miller singled with one out and was sacrificed to second by Estes only to be picked off by Astros catcher Brad Ausmus. In the eighth, Lenny Harris walked with two out. And in the ninth, Mark Grudzielanek whiffed on a pitch that was so far out of the strike zone it went to the backstop, allowing him to reach first base.

Miller threw 76 of his 105 pitches for strikes.

"It seemed like he was throwing freer and easier than I've ever seen him," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "He was getting strike one and when you do that, with his velocity, you don't know if he's going to throw you another fastball, curveball or changeup."

Meanwhile, the Astros hit Estes (5-4) with a Morgan Ensberg home run in the second and then four runs in each of the fourth and fifth innings.

In the fourth, Lance Berkman and Brian Hunter sandwiched singles around a walk to Ensberg to set up a bases-clearing double by the .196-hitting Ausmus. One batter later, Estes threw a wild pitch to allow Ausmus to score.

Jose Vizcaino led off the fifth with a single, moved to second on an infield out and scored on a Berkman single after a walk to Jeff Kent. Another walk to Ensberg loaded the bases for Hunter, who doubled in two more runs.

With the infield in, Ensberg scored when shortstop Alex Gonzalez threw high to the plate on an Ausmus grounder, moving the score to 9-0 before Patterson's homer in the bottom of the inning.

The blowout was the third time in the last four games the Cubs have given up nine or more runs.

"They kind of bled Shawn to death before they belted him," Baker said. "They've been bleeding us to death. I've never seen as many bloopers as this. We're just going through a bad stretch right now."

Miller struck out eight in the first five innings, including Sosa, Hee Seop Choi and Gonzalez twice each and Moises Alou once on a checked-swing third strike that left Alou ejected for arguing.

Damian Miller also went down twice on strikes as Houston's Miller struck out at least one in every inning except the third.

"Today was about pitching," Sosa said. "He pitched great, no question about it. He was on."