The Astros were eager to return home after a rain-soaked road trip through Cincinnati, Atlanta and Washington D.C. But off the field, they received worrisome news, and on the field, their struggles continued. That added up to an uninspiring night at Minute Maid Park, where the bullpen was again stretched, the defensive output was questionable and the Cubs prevailed, 6-3.
Hours before the game, the team was given the news that Sean Berry has a cancerous tumor on his kidney that will require surgery in the very near future. One of his closest friends both in and away from baseball is Mike Hampton, who was all business when he took the mound despite his overwhelming concern for the Astros' hitting coach.
Calling Berry "the salt of the earth," Hampton said he didn't sense a downtrodden attitude when the team took the field against Rich Harden's Cubs.
"I don't think so," Hampton said. "Sean pretty much put us at ease before the game. He was doing his job. I think once the first pitch is thrown, it comes down to baseball."
And that's where the Astros were lacking. As has been the case all too often this season, the starting pitcher was out before the sixth inning had ended, forcing the bullpen to put in overtime. And a new issue emerged -- poor defense, which made it hard for the Astros to compete in a game the Cubs won handily.
The Cubs jumped ahead immediately, scoring four runs in the first behind a bases-loaded -- and clearing -- triple from Reed Johnson. Center fielder Michael Bourn took an admirable stab at catching it on the fly, but his diving effort fell just short as the ball sailed to one of the deeper parts of center field.
"I thought I threw an OK pitch -- it wasn't a perfect pitch -- to Johnson there and just out of the reach of Michael," Hampton said. "He made a tremendous effort. He's been playing some great defense behind me. I love him in center field because he's going to go after the ball. It just boils down to not making a good enough pitch to get that big out in the first inning."
Said Cubs manager Lou Piniella: "Bourn can go get a ball. This young man is developing into a really good, everyday center fielder. He can get the ball as good as any center fielder in baseball. He was pretty close to catching Johnson's."
After the first, Hampton set his sights on simply staying in the game long enough to give the bullpen even a sliver of rest.
"As a whole, the road trip was a little tough," Hampton said. "With the rain, and our bullpen being used. And if anything, that four-run first, I was like, man, just pitch as long as you can, because I know they need a break down there. They're just getting used and abused, basically. I tried to go as long as I could. It's tough. We tried to battle back, but they had a tough pitcher on the mound."
Hampton wasn't great, but the fielders behind him [and in front of him, for that matter] didn't help. Most glaringly, Pudge Rodriguez committed two passed balls, both of which resulted in runs scored.
Manager Cecil Cooper suspected Rodriguez "jumped on a couple of balls," an observation the catcher later confirmed.
"It was not a good night for me behind the plate," Rodriguez said. "I'm human. I feel like I was jumping a little bit behind the plate, trying to reach for the pitch instead of wait for the pitch and receive it. For some reason today, I was a little anxious and I was pushing a little bit. It happens."
The Astros scored their first run in the fourth. Hunter Pence led off with an infield single off Harden and eventually scored on Hampton's base hit to left.
Lance Berkman's two-run homer in the eighth essentially knocked Harden out of the game, but Carlos Marmol recorded three outs relatively seamlessly to maintain the Cubs' lead.
After a 4-3 road trip, the Astros opened their five-game homestand with a loss to another division rival. They're 7-13 against National League Central teams so far this year.
"We're going to keep battling," Cooper said. "We've had a lot of difficult things we've had to deal with this year but we're going to keep battling. We'll get it right, and get on a roll."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.