Looser Lofton finds old groove

Tribune staff reporter

Dusty Baker had a chat Sunday morning with Kenny Lofton after watching him pressing at the plate during his first four games as a Cub.

Lofton, 1-for-17 entering the series finale with Houston, then knocked out three hits to energize the Cubs in a 5-3 win over the Astros before 42,422 at Minute Maid Park.

"Vintage Kenny Lofton," the Cubs' manager said.

Baker's words hit home with the East Chicago, Ind., native, who admitted coming home to Chicago again was a little stressful.

"It put a little bit of extra nerves on me, with my family there and being a Cubs fan," Lofton said. "I just had to take that high and cut it down a little bit. I felt a little more relaxed today."

Sammy Sosa, Eric Karros and Mark Grudzielanek hit solo homers as the Cubs snapped Jeriome Robertson's nine-game win streak and snatched two of three from the Central Division leaders. They returned home trailing the Astros by 4½ games.

Shawn Estes (7-8) notched the victory with a five-inning outing, and the Cubs' bullpen did its job with four innings of two-hit ball.

Baker predicted beforehand that the Cubs had a good shot after learning the Astros were playing against their children in a pregame "Family Day" game.

"I always hated to play on Family Day," Baker said. "Nothing against the kids, but it disrupts your routine. You can't get your work done and you're rushing to get caught up. I've lost a lot of Family Day [games] over the years. You lose to the kids, and then you go out and lose the game."

After Lofton was thrown out at home in the first when Wendell Kim waved him around after an errant pickoff throw to first by Robertson, Sosa picked up the Cubs with the 521st homer of his career, tying Willie McCovey and Ted Williams for 12th place on the all-time home run list.

Karros' home run in the second inning also marked a milestone—his 1,000th RBI—and Lofton's RBI triple in the second handed Estes a 3-0 lead and prompted Houston manager Jimy Williams to yank Robertson (10-4).

Jeff Bagwell's two-run homer in the third cut the deficit to one run, but Grudzielanek answered back with a line-drive homer in the fifth off Kirk Saarloos.

After replacing Estes to start the sixth, Dave Veres gave up a leadoff homer to Richard Hidalgo, before Lofton scored in the seventh on a double, a groundout and a wild pitch by Brad Lidge.

Kyle Farnsworth, Mark Guthrie and Joe Borowski finished it off, with Borowski posting his 19th save.

Estes' curveball was working as well as it has all season, surviving his most important outing as a Cub. Asked on Friday about Estes' status in the rotation, Baker said, "It's no longer experimental time."

Said Estes: "Dusty has never showed any lack of confidence in me. He's never told me my job was in jeopardy. To be honest, this is the first time I've ever heard this. I'll let [the media] do that kind of talking. I'll just go out and pitch."

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