Ramirez was to fly back to Chicago on Thursday to have his sore right wrist examined, leaving the team minus two key bats in the lineup. They were missed.
Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman and Brad Ausmus each belted solo homers and Luke Scott drove in three runs to power the Houston Astros to an 8-2 victory Wednesday night over the Cubs, who lost their fourth straight and were unable to move into a tie with the first-place Milwaukee Brewers.
Carlos Zambrano (14-8) picked up his 1,000th career strikeout and broke his umpteenth bat but couldn't get one run of support when he was in the game. He missed his second attempt to become the first 15-game winner in the Major Leagues.
Zambrano gave up seven runs -- the most off the right-hander since his start June 1 -- on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings, striking out six.
"He was fighting himself today," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I hadn't seen the bat over the knee. We had to calm him down a couple times. He expended too much energy. His location wasn't really good, and with two strikes, he didn't put hitters away like he has been."
More on the bat later. Zambrano agreed with Piniella's assessment.
"I tried to do too much," Zambrano said. "I was feeling good today, but I was trying to do too much. I was fighting myself, and that shouldn't happen."
Zambrano notched his 1,000th career K when Scott struck out swinging in the second inning. The right-hander, who turned 26 on June 1, joins an exclusive club of pitchers who have reached 1,000 career strikeouts before their 27th birthday. Big Z is the third to do so this year, joining San Diego's Jake Peavy and Cleveland's C.C. Sabathia.
Others who reached 1,000 strikeouts before their 27th birthday since 1980 include Kerry Wood, Pedro Martinez, Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens.
Biggio added to his hit list with one out in the Astros' third, when he smacked his eighth home run and 3,024th career hit. One out later, Berkman walked, Carlos Lee singled, and both scored on Scott's triple to go ahead, 3-0.
Berkman connected leading off the fifth, his 20th homer, and Mike Lamb added a two-out, two-run double in the sixth, which chased Zambrano. The Astros then loaded the bases against Scott Eyre, who walked Scott to force in a run and give the Astros a 7-0 lead.
|"We had to calm him down a couple times. He expended too much energy. His location wasn't really good, and with two strikes, he didn't put hitters away like he has been."|
|-- Lou Piniella, on Carlos Zambrano|
"We're just going to stretch and play," Piniella said.
That didn't work. The Cubs offense continued to stall in Day 3 without Soriano. It didn't help when Ramirez was scratched before the game because of his sore wrist.
"I've been guilty of it just like everybody else," Cubs shortstop Ryan Theriot said. "You get up there and try to press a little bit and try to do too much instead of staying in your game plan. What happens is when we start to struggle to score runs, guys put a little bit of pressure on themselves to do it all.
"With 'Sori' out of the lineup, now everybody has to pick it up a little bit and do a little more instead of staying with their game. We're trying to be Alfonso, which is impossible. It's a different ballgame when he's not in there."
Chicago loaded the bases with one out in the fourth, but Astros starter Roy Oswalt (12-6) got Zambrano looking at strike three -- prompting Big Z to break his bat over his knee as he headed back to the dugout. Theriot lined out to end the inning.
"I like to give everything I have," Zambrano said. "What made me mad was some good pitches to hit, and I was thinking too much. I have to go out there and hit whatever is coming. If he throws me a fastball, that's the pitch I'm supposed to hit -- that's why I'm upset."
The Cubs did tally in the seventh, when Theriot singled, reached third on Jacque Jones' double and scored on Derrek Lee's groundout. Theriot also hit an RBI single in the eighth. The Cubs went 2-for-34 with runners in scoring position for the three-game series.
"We couldn't get anybody across," Lee said. "It's one of those series we didn't play well offensively."
The Cubs stranded 13 on Wednesday. Piniella wasn't aware the numbers with runners on were that bad.
"I'm putting the wrong lineups out there," he said. "I've got to figure out who's going to get the timely hitting done."
Wednesday was Game No. 16 of the team's extended stretch of 20 in a row, and there has been no chance to catch its breath.
"I'm not complaining about anything," Piniella said, "but at the same time, you get a lot of days off when you don't need them, and then you get caught in a stretch in the summer heat when you're playing 34 out of 35 days, and it makes it difficult."
The Brewers have a day off before beginning a three-game series against the Astros. The Cubs travel to Colorado for a four-game series against the red-hot Rockies. The next off-day is Monday, and they will have to grin and bear it.
"Hopefully this thing turns around in Colorado," Piniella said of the lack of offense. "We're missing two big bats out of the lineup, and we just have to tough it out. What can I say?"
The Brewers lost, 19-4, on Wednesday to the Rockies. A win for the Cubs, and they would've shared first in the National League Central Division.
"What's been amazing about chasing Milwaukee is that when they were hot, we were hot, and when they're cold, we're cold," Piniella said. "It's been rather odd. They've given us enough chances. Sooner or later, we better take advantage of it."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.