HOUSTON—If the Cubs were looking to find some company for their misery, they came to the wrong place.
With giddy fans cheering their every move, the Houston Astros wasted no time in showing why they are the favorite to win the National League's crowded wild-card race, which includes the Cubs the way the Chicago area includes Rockford. They hammered Glendon Rusch and the Cubs 12-4 Monday night in the opener of a three-game series.
Wrigley Field, the Astros have been one of baseball's best teams. They're 49-25 since the Cubs last saw them; only Oakland (50-22) has been better.
Pitching has generally been Houston's strengthand with Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt starting Tuesday and Wednesday, the Cubs will be tested in that departmentbut this was about a shortage of pitching, not a surplus.
A crowd of 26,992 watched Houston bang four home runs off Rusch and relievers Todd Wellemeyer and Scott Williamson, with the recently promoted Wellemeyer failing to retire any of the six hitters he faced in Houston's six-run fifth inning. The Cubs' team earned-run average climbed to 4.42, 10th in the NL, as they fell 71/2 games behind the Astros in the wild-card race.
"It takes some steam out of you when a team has a six-run inning," Baker said. "It seems like the last couple of weeks there have been a lot of high, crooked numbers."
Baker had been hoping his team would catch fire after taking three of four from first-place St. Louis. But now it has fallen five games below .500 and needs a 33-10 finish to reach 90 victories and have a chance.
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Chris Burke's three-homer off Rusch (5-5) was the biggest of Houston's 16 hits. Morgan Ensberg, Adam Everett and Humberto Quintero also had home runs for the Astros, who had been shut out by Pittsburgh on Saturday and Sunday.
Rusch, starting for the first time since June 23, gave up five runs on 10 hits and two walks in 32/3 innings.
"It had nothing to do with [switching from the bullpen]," Rusch said. "I didn't do my job. Whether you go out for one inning or five innings, you have to pitch like you know how to. I didn't do a good job tonight."
Rusch was replacing rookie Rich Hill in the rotation. The pitching line for this spot the last three times around: eight innings, 21 hits, 18 runs (all earned), eight walks and seven strikeouts.
Before Rusch and Wellemeyer had been blown away on Monday, the Cubs had looked sharp against Houston rookie Wandy Rodriguez (8-5). They used homers by Todd Walker and Matt Murtonthe first of his careerto take a 3-1 lead.
It came tumbling down when Burke hit his three-run homer in the third and the Astros scored six runs on four hits, including the Everett and Quintero homers, and five walks in a 12-batter fifth inning.
"We were walking people," said Baker, no doubt having a flashback to a six-walk inning against Cincinnati last Wednesday.
"We're second in [the National League] in walks. The top two pitching teams in the league (St. Louis and Houston) are first and second in not giving up walks."