Cubs 8, Astros 3

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CHICAGO (AP)—Sammy Sosa’s struggles were so prolonged that last week he volunteered to drop to No. 5 in the Chicago Cubs’ batting order.

Whether it’s coincidence or not, the Cubs have won eight of nine since Sosa’s demotion, taking back the lead in the NL wild-card race.

Sosa’s opposite-field, three-run homer Thursday keyed an 8-3 victory over the Houston Astros.

“He’s swinging a lot better. Today he had the big home run, and that’s the guy we all know,” said teammate Aramis Ramirez, who followed Sosa with a home run of his own in a five-run third.

“He was struggling a little bit, but he’s out there every day giving everything he has,” Ramirez said.

Sosa’s 568th career homer landed just inside the right-field foul pole to give the Cubs a 4-2 lead. Sosa was in a 14-for-75 slump when he connected and needs one homer to reach 30 for a 10th straight season.

He declined comment after the game.

“The last week or so he’s been getting a hit a day. He goes unnoticed unless he’s hitting the ball out of the ball park,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.

To get back to the playoffs, the Cubs need Sosa to come around, and Mark Prior, too.

Prior (4-3) got his first win in three weeks and his first at Wrigley Field since Game 2 of the NL championship series last October, needing 116 pitches to get through six innings. He missed the first two months this season while on the disabled list with a sore elbow and Achilles’ tendon.

“I’ve come out of some games with leads a couple of times and it didn’t work out. It doesn’t really matter,” Prior said. “Obviously, it’s nice to win at home, and you should win at home, but as long as we are winning at home, that’s all I care about.”

Prior gave up seven hits, including Jeff Bagwell’s 19th homer, and escaped a second-and-third, no-outs jam in the sixth.

“I don’t think he was as sharp as we’ve seen him in the past,” Houston’s Brad Ausmus said. “He left his breaking ball up in the zone and you could tell he was getting upset with himself. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t fair any better, even when he has scuffling.”

The loss was just the third in 11 games for the Astros, who stranded 12 runners and fell seven games behind the Cubs.

“We’re in a situation where we really have to win every day,” Ausmus said.

Nomar Garciaparra went 2-for-5 with an RBI while wife Mia Hamm played for the U.S. women’s soccer team in its 2-1 win over Brazil in the gold-medal game of the Athens Olympics.

“Nomar, we have one for the family,” Hamm said on the live telecast after the game.

Garciaparra didn’t want to know the score or outcome of Hamm’s game during his own. Once the Cubs’ victory was over, he went into a video room to watch a replay on a DVD that had been made for him. He was not available for comment.

Houston’s Carlos Beltran homered for the fourth straight game, a solo shot off Jon Leicester in the seventh. Beltran has 33 homers, 18 since the Astros acquired him from Kansas City on June 24.

Brandon Backe (1-2), who five days earlier shut out the Cubs for seven innings in his first major league start, gave up seven runs and nine hits in three-plus innings.

“It’s always a little bit tougher the second time you go out,” Backe said. “They saw me the first time and, obviously, this time had a better look.”

Bagwell’s two-run homer in the first put the Astros ahead before Backe got in trouble in the third. After loading the bases with one out, Backe surrendered a sacrifice fly to Moises Alou, then gave up home runs to Sosa and Ramirez.

Michael Barrett’s double, a single by Prior and an RBI single by Corey Patterson made it 6-2 in the fourth and chased Backe. Garciaparra’s RBI single off Chad Harville increased the lead to five. Ramirez added a sacrifice fly in the seventh.

Notes

Bagwell’s homer was his first in 12 days. He needs one homer to reach 20 for the 12th straight season. … The Cubs have homered back-to-back 10 times this season.

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