Trio of Cubs homers backs stellar Maholm
Valbuena, Clevenger and Soriano homer to help starter end slump
CHICAGO -- Friday's game between the Cubs and Astros was delayed for nearly one hour because of rain, which allowed WGN TV to show highlights from Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game against Houston on May 5, 2008. Chicago second baseman Darwin Barney watched it on the clubhouse television, and got his teammates talking in the dugout about how hard it is to strike out that many batters.
For Paul Maholm, it's felt just as difficult lately simply getting a win.
The left-hander threw a gem on Friday to win for the first time in eight starts, and Alfonso Soriano hit his 15th home run to lead the Cubs to a 4-0 victory over the Astros.
"He was outstanding," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said of Maholm. "All of his pitches -- curveball, changeup -- he kept them down. I think he had as good a sink as he's had in a while. That was about as good as you could get. I wish he could've kept the ball down the last inning and [pitched a complete game]."
Maholm held the Astros to two hits over eight innings, then gave up a single to Brian Bixler to start the ninth. One out later, Carlos Lee doubled. Maholm was lifted for Carlos Marmol, who left the bases loaded for his sixth save.
Rookie Steve Clevenger hit his first Major League home run, a two-run shot in the fourth, and Luis Valbuena hit an opposite-field home run in the second to back Maholm (4-7), who earned his first victory since May 9 in what was his 200th career start. He had been hoping to finish what he started.
"I wanted it," Maholm said of the chance for a complete game. "I understand the situation. I gave up two hits [in the ninth]. After the last outing, I'll take what I got."
In that last outing, Maholm gave up seven runs on nine hits over 3 1/3 innings against the D-backs.
"Confidence is a huge factor, whether you're hitting or pitching," Maholm said. "You have to go out there confident with your game plan, keep the ball down and be aggressive. If you're doubting your pitches, you're doubting whatever, they won't be as crisp. ... I've faced [the Astros] a decent amount, so I kind of know their tendencies. I go in there knowing them, and am able to be confident and aggressive and keep [the ball] down."
What was the difference?
"The rain, the delay -- who knows?" Sveum said. "Some guys, just the way they feel in the bullpen, their [side sessions], you never know. [It could've been the] confidence level they feel with the ball coming out of their hand in the bullpen. He was really good today."
What also helped was that Maholm and Clevenger meshed well.
"He's a younger guy who is getting his feet wet and figuring out the staff, along with being confident in himself," Maholm said of the rookie catcher. "He's caught me four or five times, and it's getting to where I think he understands how I want to pitch. That's a big thing, to get on the same page as the starter and keep the rhythm going."
"He has a certain way he likes to throw," Clevenger said of Maholm, "and the more you catch him, the more you get a feel for how he likes to throw. I knew how he prepared before the game and how he wanted to throw, and we went off that."
"He's always good at mixing up his pitches," Astros third baseman Chris Johnson said of Maholm. "The first couple at-bats, he got ahead with the fastball, and the next time I came up, he started throwing his breaking stuff. He's one of those guys who really mixed his pitches well."
Valbuena gave the Cubs the lead with two outs in the second inning on a solo homer to left field on a 2-0 pitch from Bud Norris (5-5).
"He's done a great job and gotten big hits, too," Sveum said of Valbuena, promoted from Triple-A Iowa on June 14. "When he gets his hits, they all seem to be big hits to take the lead, or add on if we're up by one. He's done a great job. I wish we'd had him here earlier, maybe."
With one out in the fourth, Bryan LaHair singled, and Clevenger followed with a blast to right. Leading off the sixth, Soriano launched a 2-1 pitch from Norris over the left-field bleachers onto Waveland Avenue. Soriano has hit all 15 of his home runs since May 15, the most by any National League player in that time span.
Clevenger's ball was retrieved by some partygoers in the right-field bleachers, and they exchanged the souvenir for a bat.
"I didn't get to meet them," Clevenger said. "I heard they had a good time out there."
The win was especially nice after the Cubs' 17-1 loss to the Mets on Wednesday.
"The day off we had [Thursday], everybody forgot about the game we had Wednesday," Soriano said. "They came back and took care of business."
Maybe Maholm did get to watch Wood's game. The Astros, who arrived early Friday morning after a night game in Houston on Thursday, most likely changed the channel.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.