Worse yet, the red-hot Lance Berkman was finally contained, going 0-for-4 to end his hitting streak at 17 games.
The first baseman received a standing ovation from the home crowd prior to his first at-bat, but the crowd was subdued during his four at-bats that resulted in a fielder's-choice grounder and three strikeouts. It was the first time this year Berkman fanned three times.
"You enjoy the hitting streaks while they last," Berkman said. "It's never fun to make outs and to go 0-for-4 and strike out three times, but it's still part of the game. It hasn't changed."
Berkman's only big scoring opportunity arrived in his final at-bat, during the eighth frame. Michael Bourn and Kazuo Matsui knocked back-to-back singles off Michael Wuertz, prompting Cubs manager Lou Piniella to call for hard-throwing Carlos Marmol to face the meat of the Astros' order.
After Marmol coaxed a pop fly from Miguel Tejada, he worked Berkman to a full count and struck him out on a check swing.
"It's certainly disappointing," Berkman said of ending his hitting streak. "But this is the Major Leagues, and there are pitchers that are capable of making three pitches that there's not much you can do with. I thought Carlos came in and did a tremendous job.
"Sometimes -- and I'm not too much into tipping my hat, because I think that can become an excuse -- but there are times when you just have to because there's not much you can do. Bottom line is he was just better than I was in that at-bat."
With first base open, Marmol and catcher Geovany Soto were aggressive, but at the same time, careful.
"That last at-bat, there's a base open," Soto said. "If we fall behind, we weren't going to pitch to him. He managed to get to 3-2 and he checked [his] swing, and we managed to strike him out."
Carlos Lee grounded out to end the inning and end the Astros' last real threat to mount one of their signature late-game comebacks that has been a highlight in the month of May.
|"Sometimes -- and I'm not too much into tipping my hat, because I think that can become an excuse -- but there are times when you just have to because there's not much you can do."|
|-- Lance Berkman|
The first-place Cubs improved to 28-17 and moved to 3 1/2 games in front of the third-place Astros. It's a little early to worry about standings, but the Astros were disappointed to have opened a seven-game homestand with a loss to one of their fiercest division rivals.
Manager Cecil Cooper was somewhat mystified by the vocal nature of Cubs fans as compared to Astros fans.
"Tonight, it seemed like there were more Cubs fans than Astros fans," Cooper said. "That was a little disappointing. That's all I heard was, 'Go Cubbies, go Cubbies.' No, 'Yea, Astros.' That was a little disappointing."
To veteran Brian Moehler, some of that is to be expected.
"I didn't notice it," he said. "I played for Florida for two years and every time we played the Mets, there were more Mets fans. You just don't notice those things. The Cubs have a huge following. The Mets have a following, Yankees, Boston ... those teams who have so much history. They always have a huge following. That's just the way it is."
This game turned sour early. Moehler was strong through the first three frames, but the Cubs tagged him for three runs in a fourth inning highlighted by an inside-the-park home run by Soto.
Soto knocked a ball off the wall to the right of the visitors' bullpen in left-center, and although it appeared to hit above the yellow home run marker, the umpires ruled the ball in play.
Bourn made a leaping attempt and then lost sight of the ball, which had bounced into center field. By the time Bourn tracked it down, Soto was close to the finish line.
"I didn't know where the ball was," Bourn said. "I looked up. When I jumped, I knew it bounced off of something. I didn't know what it bounced off of. When I looked around, I was looking for the ball. I couldn't find it. After a while, I saw it."
Moehler said he felt strong throughout the outing, but acknowledged Aramis Ramirez's 11-pitch at-bat in the fourth, which ended with a base hit to left, helped to cut his outing short.
"The fourth inning, I threw a lot of pitches," he said. "I think if that hadn't happened, I could have gone out for the sixth. Obviously, that at-bat by Ramirez was a good at-bat on his part. A few less pitches, I think I could have gone out for the sixth."
The Cubs have won the last three meetings with the Astros this year. The first week of the season, the Astros won the first game at Wrigley but dropped the final two.
"We're going to battle every night," Cooper said. "Tonight, we had them on the ropes. I'll take my chances with three, four, five [hitters] every night in that situation. Today was their day. We've got two more."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.