Chicago (77-81) at Houston (87-71)

  • Game info: 8:05 pm EDT Thu Sep 29, 2005
Preview | Box Score | Recap

The Houston Astros are moving closer to securing their second straight NL wild-card title.

But don’t tell that to manager Phil Garner.

“We’ve still got work to do,” Garner said. “Tomorrow is our biggest game of the year. Then, the next day will probably be even bigger.”

Houston can lock up no worse than a one-game playoff for the wild card when it plays the opener of a four-game series with the visiting Chicago Cubs.

The Astros, who staged an improbable second-half comeback last season before falling one win shy of their first World Series appearance, were 15 games below .500 earlier this year before rallying ahead of wild-card contenders Philadelphia, Florida and Washington.

On Wednesday, the Astros had to come from behind against 21-game winner Chris Carpenter to pull out a 7-6 win at St. Louis. The Astros completed a two-game sweep of the defending NL champions and boosted their lead to 2 1/2 games over the Phillies in the wild-card race.

Philadelphia is idle Thursday, meaning the Astros have a chance to increase their edge to three games with three to play by taking the series opener from Chicago. That would drop the Astros’ magic number to one, and assure them of at least a one-game playoff with the Phillies on Monday.

Morgan Ensberg led the Houston attack Wednesday, pounding out four hits, including a tiebreaking double in the top of the ninth inning.

“I feel like nothing has changed,” said Ensberg, who reached 100 RBIs for the first time in his major league career. “We need to win tomorrow and keep on winning. I don’t look at it that we somehow did a great thing because of the win. It was necessary for us.”

The Cubs, out of the playoffs for a second straight year after losing Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS to Florida, are coming off back-to-back losses to last-place Pittsburgh, including Wednesday’s 3-2 setback.

“It was very symbolic. It seems likes we get in that situation and we don’t get anything. It’s very frustrating,” manager Dusty Baker said after the Cubs failed to drive home the tying run despite loading the bases with none out in the ninth.

“We had a great chance to win that game.”

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Starting Pitchers

G. Rusch COL vs. W. Rodríguez HOU
9-8 Record 10-10
4.52 ERA 5.53
111 K 80
53 BB 53
1.57 WHIP 1.46