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Dempster's gem leads Cubs past Astros

Dempster's gem tops Astros

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HOUSTON -- They weren't really worried, but there was something of a sense of relief among the Cubs following their 9-0 blanking of the Astros on Sunday afternoon at Minute Maid Park.

Relief that the three-game losing streak was over. Relief that an offense that managed to score just four runs in the past 27 innings came back to life, at least for one game.

And, of course, relief for Cubs starter Ryan Dempster, who pitched eight masterful innings.

Dempster could finally put a dubious streak in his rear-view mirror as he left town. In case you hadn't heard, until he won Sunday, Dempster (11-4) hadn't won on the road since June 2, 2006, a span of 64 appearances.

"Finally won on the road. Oh my god, such a relief!" Dempster said jokingly. "All the questions can stop now."

It was a streak that was more happenstance than indicative of Dempster's performance. The All-Star right-hander's ERA is 3.05 overall and 2.81 on the road.

Dempster scattered six hits -- all singles -- while striking out seven and walking one. Only one Houston baserunner made it to third base, and that happened in the fifth, when the Astros loaded the bases with nobody out. But Dempster struck out J.R. Towles and Astros starter Brandon Backe, and Kazuo Matsui popped out to third baseman Aramis Ramirez to end the threat.

"He was good, he's in my opinion probably the most underrated starter in the game," Houston first baseman Lance Berkman said. "He's got a good, deceptive fastball, and his split-finger is very difficult to pick up. He just did a nice job. We never got anything going. We had that one opportunity with the bases loaded and a chance to maybe get back in the game, but he did a nice job of making his pitches when he had to. That was pretty much it right there."

After the jam in the fifth, Dempster allowed just two baserunners, a single to Carlos Lee in the sixth and a walk to Towles in the seventh. He retired 12 of the first 14 batters he faced and 12 of the last 14.

"He had a good fastball the whole game. He maintained his velocity. He had a good split-finger for the left-hand hitters, and he had a nice slider for the right-handed hitters," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "It was a good win for us. I wanted to send Dempster out for the ninth, but the inning got long and he had already thrown 104 pitches. [Carlos] Marmol came in and gave us a real good ninth. He needed the work."

Dempster called it "a nice win, a really good win."

"I ran into a little bit of a jam in that one inning and was able to get out of it unscathed," Dempster said. "The boys swung the bats today and put up a bunch of runs. It was just a good win for us. Coming out of the break, we didn't play like we wanted to for a couple of days. Nice to get on the bird after a 'W' like that."

Mike Fontenot hit his eighth homer and went 3-for-3 with three RBIs. Ryan Theriot raised his average to .329 with a trio of hits, and Kosuke Fukudome contributed a pair of doubles as the Cubs collected 13 hits, including five for extra bases.

"You know what was nice today was we got a lot of hits to the opposite field. That means that we were staying on the ball," Piniella said. "You didn't see that the first two games. Saw a lot of ground balls and high pop-ups to short center and to the pull side of the field. Today we got a lot of base hits the other way -- balls hit fairly hard."

The Cubs scored twice in the first off Backe (6-10). With one out, Fukudome doubled. He scored when Derrek Lee doubled on the next pitch from the Astros right-hander. Lee came around to score on a two-out single by Jim Edmonds.

Fontenot's homer, on an 0-2 pitch from Backe with one out in the fifth, gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead.

Fontenot singled and scored on Theriot's two-out single in the seventh to account for Chicago's fourth run.

"[Fontenot's hitting is] not a surprise or a shock to me," Theriot said. "I've been seeing that for a lot of years. I'm just happy for Mike he's getting the at-bats and the opportunity. I think everybody on this team knows that he can help us, and he's proving that."

The Cubs hung a five on the board in the ninth to ice the game.

Piniella is hoping the breakout is a sign of better things to come for the Cubs' offense.

"[GM] Jim Hendry and I were talking before the ballgame," Piniella said. "I told him when we come here from now on, we're not going to take any batting practice. We're just going to go out and play. Then we went out and scored runs without batting practice. [Let's] make the bus at 5:15, 5:30, come out here and stretch and play."

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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