HOUSTON—The momentum the Cubs built over the last week came to a crashing halt in a span of less than 24 hours at Minute Maid Park.
Making his first major-league start, Houston right-hander Chris Sampson combined with two relievers on a 1-0 shutout Wednesday to give the Astros the series and send the Cubs 12 games below .500 at 23-35.
"We're not the ones who are uptight," second baseman Tony Womack said.
So who is uptight?
The fans? The media? The coaching staff? The front office?
Womack did not elaborate, preferring to leave it to everyone's imagination.
The only certainty was rookie left-hander Sean Marshall once again was a tough-luck loser, falling to 3-4 despite a solid seven-inning outing in which he allowed four hits. Brad Ausmus' third-inning home run, his first of the season in his 164th at-bat, was the only mistake Marshall made.
"That's just baseball life," Marshall said.
Marshall has allowed two or fewer earned runs in eight of his last 10 starts but has only two victories to show for it. Take away horrible outings against San Francisco and Florida, and Marshall has a 1.42 earned-run average for his other eight starts over that 10-game span. In a season in which there has been little to shout about, Marshall has been one of the few bright spots.
"I love this kid," catcher Michael Barrett said. "He knows what he wants to do. That's a team that hits lefties fairly well. He mixed his pitches well."
While the Cubs entered the game ranked last in the league in starting pitching, Marshall deserves little blame for the downslide of a once-special rotation. With Kerry Wood's status in doubt again, Marshall figures to stick in the rotation for some time to come, even after Mark Prior's eventual return.
"I feel like I belong here, 100 percent," Marshall said. "It's just about the ability to stay comfortable out there and keep going all season."
The Cubs' hitters had no discernible pulse against the 28-year-old Sampson, who was out of baseball from 2000-02 and working as an assistant coach at a community college before returning to the minors in '03.
Sampson held the Cubs hitless until John Mabry's controversial infield hit in the fifth inning. He wound up allowing only three hits in seven innings.
"I've told you before, you hate to face a guy you haven't seen before," manager Dusty Baker said. "After the first or second go-around, you have a better idea of what he's throwing. The key was he threw strike one with all his pitches. He was kind of pitching like Roger [Clemens]."
The only things Sampson and Clemens may have in common are their organization and a Texas driver's license, which made Wednesday's shutout that much harder to stomach.