After scuffling offensively most of the month, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez each hit solo homers in a five-run fourth inning and Ramirez added another blast in the eighth to power the Cubs to a 12-3 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday.
This was Day 1 of a key week in the Central Division race and the first of five games between the Cubs and Cardinals. With the Brewers' loss to the Pirates on Monday, the Cubs moved into a tie for first place in the Central, while St. Louis fell three games out of first.
"We've been playing around .500 now for a long time," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I don't think anybody thought that would be good enough. Over these next 20 games, we have to win more than we lose to give ourselves a chance. It's whoever's doing the best."
The Cubs did everything right in the fourth. With the game tied at 1, Lee led off the inning with his 18th home run, and one out later, Ramirez connected on his 21st, one of four hits by the third baseman. The Cubs rattled off four straight hits, beginning with Mark DeRosa's single, and followed by RBI doubles by Jacque Jones, Jason Kendall and Ted Lilly -- yes, Lilly -- to chase Joel Pineiro (4-3).
"Where has that been? That was a thing of beauty," Piniella said of the inning. "We hit the ball for power, we hit the ball in gaps, we hit the ball with men in scoring position. That's really what we need. A game like this, yeah, it can really get you going. Let's hope it does. And our pitching was good. Today the hitters stepped it up."
The win was a relief after losing two out of three to Pittsburgh over the weekend.
"After losing [Sunday's] game in Pittsburgh, a lot of guys were pretty upset about it and it rolled over into today's game and they took it out on the pitching," Lilly said.
Lilly (15-7) notched his first career double, driving in a run, and more importantly, held the Cardinals to three runs on five hits over seven innings while striking out seven. He served up a solo homer to Jim Edmonds in the second and a two-run shot to So Taguchi in the sixth. The 15 wins matches his career high, set last year with Toronto.
"That was fun, and it was important," Lilly said of his hit, the first extra-base hit of his career. "Even though we had a pretty good lead right there, you can't take anything for granted in this game. I've seen us come back against other teams and they probably felt like they had a pretty secure lead. It was fun and it was important for us."
What the big inning also did was give the Cubs a chance to relax.
"We're sitting there in a 1-1 game in the fourth inning, and you can't help but think, 'Here we go, it's another grind and we're going to have to find a way,'" DeRosa said. "Then, bing, bang, boom, we're up 6-1. Everyone contributed in the lineup, guys off the bench did a great job, another great effort by Ted Lilly. Hopefully, it sparks us. It better."
The Cubs lead the season series against the Cardinals, 8-4, with four games this weekend at Busch Stadium.
"You can't make a big deal out of this game," said Ramirez, who notched his first multi-homer game of the year. "This is just a game, but hopefully we keep doing it -- come back tomorrow ready to play and do the same thing to Houston."
Lee had three hits and is 16-for-39 this month. He has hit 12 homers since the All-Star break after totaling six in the first half of the season.
"Our bats have been a little quiet the last few days, so hopefully this jump-starts our offense and gives us some confidence," Lee said.
It gave Monday's crowd of 40,358 something to cheer about. The Cubs now have drawn 3 million fans for the fourth straight year, and this season set a record for reaching that number at the earliest date (Game No. 75) in franchise history.
Asked if the Cubs can keep the offense going in the upcoming series against Houston and St. Louis, Piniella nixed the question.
"That's a very negative question. Let's delete that one," he said. "We've talked about it a lot. Let's hope we see it."
We'll likely see a clean-shaven Piniella on Tuesday. He's tired of questions about his beard and vowed to find a barber in Houston.
"I might get a Mohawk, too," he said, laughing. "I'll give you a different look."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.