The problem wasn't the rumors that Rich Harden might be traded, but his command, or lack of.
The Cubs right-hander struck out nine but also walked a season-high six and served up a two-run double and two-run homer to Carlos Lee as the Houston Astros posted a 5-3 win Monday night.
Derrek Lee belted his 26th homer with one out in the eighth off former Cubs pitcher LaTroy Hawkins, but it wasn't enough as they lost for the 16th time in the last 24 games, and fell six games back in the Wild Card behind the Rockies and Giants, who were both idle.
"We've got 30 games left," Cubs catcher Koyie Hill said. "You go up there and play that game, that day. Whether you're 30 games behind or one game behind, you're going to play the same way. Yeah, we're running out of games, but we're still very capable of making a run.
"I know the Astros team in 2005 was 10 games behind St. Louis the year they went to the World Series," Hill said of Houston, which won the Wild Card that season. "They made up a bunch of games in a month, and I plan on the Cubs doing the same thing."
Which is why Harden (8-8) was starting. The right-hander was reportedly claimed on waivers by the Twins, who had until noon CT on Monday to convince the Cubs to part with him. Harden was 3-1 with a 1.80 ERA in eight starts since the All-Star break, which would make him an attractive addition for a playoff-bound team. The Cubs felt they were too close to give him up.
"You can't just ignore [the rumors]," Harden said, "but the whole thing was ridiculous and had nothing to do with my performance today. I won't make excuses. I still knew I was starting on Monday and I had to prepare myself, and I got prepared and I just didn't get it done."
He may have been feeling too good. In the first inning, Harden threw 22 pitches, and the Astros swung at five and fouled off only one. He walked Chris Coste to lead off the Astros' third and he scored one out later on Michael Bourn's double. Harden, who had given up four earned runs in his last three starts, walked two more batters to set up Carlos Lee's two-run single.
"Carlos Lee seems to get the big hit every time he comes here," Derrek Lee said.
The Astros' Lee did just that with one out in the fifth, hitting a two-run homer, his 22nd of the season and 20th of his career at Wrigley Field. Harden was pulled after five innings.
"I felt really good, maybe too good," Harden said. "I just had trouble getting a feel and getting a rhythm and, obviously, walks killed me. I had a lot of those, especially leading off innings. That was not what the team needed tonight."
"[Harden] is a guy who throws hard, and he mixes in a nice split," Astros manager Cecil Cooper said. "There were some balls ducking and dodging out of the strike zone down in the zone. I thought we had some real good at-bats, particularly the upper part of the lineup. The top four or five guys in the lineup I thought really did a good job."
Hill got feedback from the Astros, too.
"Their hitters, either speaking to me or when I was on base, indicated they weren't real comfortable against [Harden], so you know his stuff was good," Hill said. "Rich's stuff is going to be good on a bad day. Unfortunately, we got behind early in the game and never really recovered."
Hill tried to help, hitting an RBI double and scoring on Ryan Theriot's single in the Chicago fifth against Roy Oswalt (8-5), who gave up six hits over seven innings. Lee was safe at second on an error by right fielder Hunter Pence leading off the sixth, but was stranded.
"It wasn't a good game and we haven't played well, but what do you do?" Lee said. "Obviously, there isn't a lot of time left and we're not in a good spot, but you don't throw in the towel. You keep battling and try to keep going."
The Cubs haven't taken advantage of this 10-game homestand.
"Let's just win some ballgames," Lou Piniella said. "That's the only way to approach this thing. You need a little winning streak, you need more consistency winning. We're 3-4 on this homestand. We need to do better."