The Cubs turned their season toward the home stretch earlier this month with a Tuesday-night game against the first-place Houston Astros. Up to then the Cubs had done an admirable job of simply staying in the National League Central Division race, especially with pitching ace Mark Prior on the disabled list, recovering from the bumped shoulder he suffered in a baserunning gaffe in mid-July. They briefly drifted below .500 a couple of times, falling a season-high five and a half games out of first following a two-game series sweep at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies in late July. Then they took two of three against the Astros in Houston to begin a streak of four straight series wins, finishing with a three-game sweep of the Padres in San Diego in early August. They followed those wins by losing two out of three to the Dodgers in Los Angeles, salvaging only the finale, when Prior outdueled Kevin Brown with the help of a couple of mammoth Sammy Sosa homers. When they returned home to lose the Monday-night opener of a critical four-game series with the Astros–Kerry Wood had only one bad inning, but it was enough to cost him a 3-1 loss to Wade Miller–it dropped them three and a half back. On Tuesday night they were sending their third-best starter, Carlos Zambrano, against the Astros’ Tim Redding in a game that figured to dictate the course of the rest of their season.

The wide-bodied Zambrano, however, pitched great. Displaying no-hitter stuff, he struck out five of the first six batters he faced. He didn’t do it with guile but with hard, low slants in which everything came in knee-high and moving fast. A friend with a view of one of the Wrigley Field pitch-speed screens later told me it seemed that every Zambrano pitch registered somewhere in the 90-mile-an-hour range. But his fastball was slicing in and down on the Astros’ right-handed hitters, and he mixed that with a biting slider breaking in the other direction and an occasional split-fingered fastball that dropped straight down.

His teammates, meanwhile, were staking him to a two-run lead just as most of the standing-room-only crowd were settling into their seats. Alex Gonzalez, famous for his walk-off homers, had slumped down to a .224 batting average and a couple of days on the bench, but manager Dusty Baker reinserted him into the lineup in the second slot, where he’d hit so well early in the season. He responded right away by following Kenny Lofton’s leadoff single with a home run to left off a 3-1 Redding fastball. The crowd roared its approval into the Wrigleyville dusk. Yet the Cubs just couldn’t get the hit that would put the Astros away. Redding, a capable righty with a Modigliani tilt of the head mid-delivery, kept getting outs when he needed them. He stranded runners at the corners in the third, then, after giving up a slapped single to Zambrano and a double to Lofton, retired both Gonzalez and Sosa meekly to end the fifth. In the sixth, however, the Cubs finally touched him for an insurance run, with Alou scampering home just under the throw of Richard Hidalgo in right field on a single by Aramis Ramirez–like Lofton, shanghaied from the Pittsburgh Pirates for some much-needed help–and Zambrano had a three-run cushion.

It wasn’t just Zambrano who looked good, giving up a mere two hits and a walk through the first six innings. The Cubs appeared crisp across the diamond. In the fifth, Ramirez, who has a deserved reputation as an erratic fielder, snuffed out a potential rally by erasing a leadoff single with an around-the-horn double play. He scooped the grounder and side-armed it to the scrappy Augie Ojeda at second, who turned it like a quarterback standing up to a blitz straight overhand to Hee Seop Choi, who stretched at first to get the batter by a half step. When the Astros’ menacing Jeff Bagwell came to the plate representing the tying run in the eighth, the anxiety in the stands was tangible. But Zambrano threw the first pitch right by Bagwell, who swung mightily, rousing the crowd, and the 39,751 in the stands exploded with relief when he ground into an inning-ending force-out. Baker sent Zambrano out to finish his shutout in the ninth, and after a one-out single by Lance Berkman he got Hidalgo to hit a little squib up the middle. Gonzalez, finishing on defense what he had started on offense, bare-handed it, stepped on second, and threw to first for the game-ending double play.

These two evenly matched teams both sent their fifth starters to the mound the next day, and although both were given leads at various times, neither could get through the fifth inning to qualify for the win. The Cubs’ Shawn Estes walked five and blew an early 3-1 lead with a run in the third and two more in the fifth to put the Astros up 4-3. In the bottom half, the Astros’ Jeriome Robertson allowed singles to Lofton and Gonzalez to open the inning and was yanked for Dan Miceli. Miceli got Sosa swinging, but then Alou deposited one in the left-field bleachers to put the Cubs back on top, 6-4. The difference between the two teams on this day was in the bull pens. Baker paraded out a series of relievers–Antonio Alfonseca, Kyle Farnsworth, Mike Remlinger, and Joe Borowski–each of whom worked a scoreless inning, and the Cubs won.

In the series finale the next afternoon, Matt Clement–returned to vitality with the renewal of that ugly Appalachian chin beard he wore last season–gave up a mere three hits while working into the sixth, by which time the Cubs had a five-run lead. The big blow had again come in the first, when Houston knuckleballer Jared Fernandez gave up a leadoff single to Lofton–throughout the series a persistent source of problems for the Astros–and walked Gonzalez. Just when he seemed about to work out of it, Choi (who’d never seen a knuckler before) swatted one into the left-field gap to score both base runners. The Cubs added two more in the fourth, and then Rick White, picked up by the Astros after being jettisoned by the White Sox, forced in another run by combining two hit batters with two walks.

Gonzalez punctuated it with a two-run homer to make the final 7-1. The Cubs had won the final three to close within a half game of the Astros, who had fallen into a tie for first with the Saint Louis Cardinals. Each game drew just under 40,000 fans, and the combined attendance of more than 150,000 set a Wrigley Field record for a four-game series. Cubs fans have shown none of the hesitation White Sox fans have in committing themselves to the team and its pennant hopes.

To open a three-game series with the Dodgers, the Cubs again sent Prior to the mound, and he looked every inch an ace in beating them 2-1. Sosa, frustrated throughout the Houston series, gave him a first-inning lead with a double to score Lofton, on base with another game-opening single. Then in the fifth Sosa drove in Gonzalez with a hit following his double. While Prior didn’t have great stuff–he never could seem to find the grip on his curve–he mowed the Dodgers down with his fastball. Although he gave up a run in the eighth, he stranded the tying run at third by getting the dangerous Shawn Green to pop up and then fanning Jeromy Burnitz. Baker sent him back out in the ninth to finish things, which he did, ending with a lovely called strikeout of Ron Coomer on that curve he’d been tinkering with all day. It was the Cubs’ fourth straight victory, and when the Astros and Cards both lost that night, the Cubs–yes, the Cubs–were in first place all by themselves in mid-August, with little more than a month of the season to go.

That, however, was as good as it got–at least for the time being. Wood was clobbered in a Saturday matinee, and Zambrano got no support in a 3-0 loss Sunday that sent the Cubs back out on the road to Houston. There they lost two of three yet remained close in what continued to be a three-way dogfight. They moved on to Arizona, where Zambrano took a no-hitter into the eighth inning against the Diamondbacks’ fierce, fireballing Curt Schilling, while Sosa provided the offense with a couple of homers off the opposing ace, just as he had against the Dodgers’ Brown. Estes, skipped over in the rotation in Houston following a day off, returned to the mound and again got clobbered. But Clement recovered from a bad outing against the Astros to win 5-3 the following day and give the Cubs the series. They entered this week at 67-62, a single win behind the Astros and Cards, tied for first at 68-62, and with a stop in Saint Louis for three games before a scheduled return to Wrigley to meet the Milwaukee Brewers–a patzer opponent, but one that has given the Cubs trouble since moving to the National League five years ago.

It looked like the team that could put together a ten-game winning streak would coast home, but none of the three seemed capable of such a stretch. The Astros and Cards both struggled with their starting pitching, with respective aces Roy Oswalt and Matt Morris dealing with health woes; and while the Cubs had the pitching, their offense tended to sputter, even with Lofton at the top of the order and Sosa and Alou pounding away in the middle.

In what amounts to a battle between the Cubs’ pitching, the Cardinals’ hitting, and the Astros’ experience, the team that manages to win just five straight games in the coming month will probably gain a stranglehold on the division. It’s worth noting that with Prior, Wood, and Zambrano pitching well and Clement–the oldest of the bunch at 29–coming around, if the Cubs make it to the playoffs they can match staffs with anyone. Yet it’s also worth reciting the old baseball saw that young pitchers will break your heart–something no Cubs fan needs to be reminded of.