Wood walks tightrope to close thriller

Wood walks tightrope to cap thriller

ST. LOUIS -- There were two outs and two on when Lou Piniella went to the mound in the ninth inning Thursday to talk to Kerry Wood before Albert Pujols stepped into the batter's box. The message was simple, as was Piniella's arm gesture.

"It was a hand confirmation -- 'Go get him out,'" Piniella said. "And then I said a little prayer back to the dugout."

Wood did the job, getting Pujols to pop up and preserve the Cubs' 3-2 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, notching his 30th save in the process.

"It was fun when it was over," Wood said. "It's a tough spot -- you walk him and put the winning run on second. You never want to put yourself in a situation facing the best hitter in the game with a chance to end it. We came out on the right end of it."

Rich Harden, who said he felt as if it'd been a month since he pitched, picked up the win, and the Cubs opened a 5 1/2-game lead in the National League Central while reducing their magic number to secure a playoff berth to eight.

"I've said all along we pitch well, play good defense and have timely hitting," Piniella said. "The only thing that's been missing here of late is the timely hitting."

The defense was stellar. Alfonso Soriano made a diving grab of Pujols' liner in the eighth, Kosuke Fukudome robbed Felipe Lopez of an extra-base hit and possible RBI one batter later, and Aramis Ramirez tagged pinch-hitter Brendan Ryan in the ninth after he overslid third base.

However, just as Harden returned, the Cubs will take an unexpected break. When they resume their postseason quest will depend on Mother Nature. The Cubs' longest road trip of the season has been interrupted by Hurricane Ike, and they headed home after Thursday's game for an off-day Friday. The threat of the powerful storm postponed their series at Houston against the Astros, who are still in contention for the NL Wild Card.

"There's nothing we can do about it, it's the hand we've been dealt and we've got to be ready whenever we do start playing," Wood said.

Back to the game. Harden improved to 5-1 since joining the Cubs on July 8. The right-hander has had arm problems the past two years, and his time off was planned as a precautionary move. He struck out three and gave up two runs on five hits over six innings.

"It was good to get back out there," he said. "It seemed like a long time, a really long time."

"It was fun when it was over."
-- Kerry Wood

Someone mentioned that Harden wasn't exactly lighting up the stadium radar guns.

"Who cares?" said Carlos Zambrano, who overheard the question.

"Just like 'Z' said, who cares?" Harden said. "I don't know why everybody puts so much on velocity. Location is the most important thing, change of speed. I realize that this year more than any other. I used to try to rear back and throw it as hard as I could every pitch. I've done better trying to take something off and locating. When you need it, you've got a little extra."

The Cubs loaded the bases in the fifth, taking advantage of an error by Pujols, who booted Reed Johnson's grounder. Todd Wellemeyer (12-7) then walked Ryan Theriot to force in a run, and Derrek Lee grounded out to drive in another and make it 2-0.

Lee went 0-for-5, struck out twice and flung his bat toward the dugout in disgust after being called out on strikes to end the seventh.

"That's been my year," Lee said. "One good game and bad right after that. It was frustrating. For the most part, I've felt pretty good at the plate, but tonight I didn't feel good."

Maybe the extra time will help?

"I'm not tired," Lee said. "I'm just not swinging the bat well. That's probably the worst I've felt in five years. What are you going to do? Just keep swinging. I don't have an explanation."

"He's been struggling, he really has," Piniella said of Lee. "He's probably trying to do too much, he's probably pressing. Boy, he's had opportunities. Maybe these two days will be good for him, probably better for him than anybody else."

The Cubs did tack on a run when Mark DeRosa and Mike Fontenot hit back-to-back doubles in the Chicago sixth off Kyle McClellan to open a 3-0 lead. But Harden walked Aaron Miles with one out in the sixth, and he scored on Pujols' double. One out later, Pujols tallied on Felipe Lopez's single.

When this series began in St. Louis, Piniella delivered a fiery speech on Tuesday, saying the team needed to pick it up.

"I don't think anybody was too concerned with the way we've been playing," Harden said. "We had some tough games. We came out to play the last couple games, and hopefully we can take some momentum into the last couple weeks."

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