HOUSTON—They released their staff leader in spring training. Their ace is on the disabled list and the No. 2 man has disappointed. The big guys in the bullpen are overworked.
And yet the Houston Astros are hanging in there.
National League Central gave Kerry Wood and the Cubs something to remember them by on Thursday night, bashing their way to a 9-3 victory before 29,555 at Minute Maid Park.
By winning the series two games to one, Houston kept the Cubs from assuming first place in the division. The sight of Wood firing his glove against the back of the dugout could become a lasting memory for the Astros, as it very likely will be the last game between the teams in 2003.
"In my opinion, we should beat this team," an angry Wood said afterward. "We didn't get the job done, myself included. I didn't give us a chance to win."
While manager Dusty Baker's Cubs won the season series 9-7, they are 1½ games behind Houston and a half-game behind St. Louis in the Central. One can only wonder what the Astros' lead would be without Roy Oswalt's recurring groin problems, Wade Miller's 4.43 earned-run average and Shane Reynolds' financially motivated release.
"It's disappointing, but it is what it is," Baker said. "We're 1½ behind but we're still in good shape. We're one behind in the loss column. It's behind us. We just have to tighten our game up, especially our fundamentals."
Bothered by a bad back in his last start, Wood badly wanted to pick up where Mark Prior had left off in the Cubs' combined shutout on Wednesday night. But that's easier said than done against a lineup that starts with proven run-producers Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell and Jeff Kent.
Biggio's two-run homer in the fourth inning was the biggest of 16 hits for the Astros, who got the five solid innings they needed from journeyman lefty Ron Villone (4-3). The Cubs had only two shots at significant rallies before the game was out of hand and failed to seize either one.
Damian Miller grounded into a double play to end a scoreless second that had seemed so promising with the bases loaded and no one out. Then Baker's all-righty lineup backfired on him in the fifth inning.
Singles by Eric Karros and Ramon Martinez and a Miller walk loaded the bases with no outs for Wood. Baker called on the hot Tom Goodwin for a rare lefty-versus-lefty assignment. The pinch-hitter went down swinging.
The rally then ended in bizarre fashion as Martinez somehow got himself trapped between second and third base on Doug Glanville's sacrifice fly to right fielder Richard Hidalgo.
Wood (11-10) has become a concern. He never has developed the consistency the Cubs hoped he would but currently finds himself in a badly timed funk. He is 1-4 with a 7.31 earned-run average in his last six starts.
This troubling stretch began after Baker allowed him to throw 129 and 130 pitches, respectively, in starts sandwiched around his first appearance in and All-Star Game.
Baker had considered skipping Wood's next turn after Los Angeles knocked him out in the third inning last Saturday at Wrigley Field. But Wood persuaded him that the back pain he had experienced was minor. Both the manager and the pitcher denied that health was a problem against the Astros.