HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros were being aggressive even though they had the lead in the NL wild-card chase. And it cost them.
Charles Gipson was cut down at home plate for the final out following Luke Scott's double into the right-center gap, and the Chicago Cubs beat Houston 3-2 on Thursday night to cut the Astros' lead over Philadelphia to two games going into the final weekend of the regular season.
Gipson was waved home by third base coach Doug Mansolino, and when the speedy pinch runner headed toward home, he saw the relay throw to the plate. He tried to knock over Henry Blanco, but the catcher applied the tag and held on.
"No question about it, he's got to send him," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "I'd been upset if he hadn't sent him. If the throw's off at all, he's got a chance to be safe."
Instead, the Cubs made two perfect throws to end the game.
Ryan Dempster walked Orlando Palmeiro with one out, Gipson pinch ran and pinch-hitter Mike Lamb struck out before Scott pinch hit. Center fielder Corey Patterson cut off Scott's drive and threw to second baseman Jose Macias, who made the relay to Blanco, well ahead of Gipson.
"When you draw up a relay play, that's the way to draw it up," said Dempster, who struck out two and got his 32nd save.
"We executed that cutoff play perfectly. That was a very athletic play," manager Dusty Baker said. "That ball went into the gap, and it was obvious that they were going to send him. It was a perfect hop, a perfect throw and a perfect tag."
Derrek Lee broke a sixth-inning tie with his 46th homer, and the Cubs led by one run entering the ninth.
The Astros, who had won 11 of their previous 14 games and were trying to clinch no worse than a tie for the wild card, had another runner thrown out at the plate earlier when they led.
After Lance Berkman led off the second with his 23rd homer to make it 1-0, Chris Burke and Adam Everett had consecutive one-out singles. But a squeeze play failed when Raul Chavez didn't get a pitch he could bunt, and Burke was tagged out in the baseline.
"When you play these type of games, they're going to be close," Garner said. "That's why you've got to know what you're doing and execute. We didn't execute."
The Astros (87-72) still have a commanding position over the Phillies (85-74) with three games to go.
Philadelphia, which was off Thursday, begins a series Friday night at Washington.
Houston finishes the regular season against the Cubs, with Andy Pettitte (17-9) trying to win his eighth straight decision on Friday night. Roger Clemens (12-8) and Roy Oswalt (19-12) are the scheduled starters over the weekend.
Glendon Rusch (9-8) won his fourth straight decision over five September starts for the Cubs, who must sweep the four-game series to avoid a losing record.
Wandy Rodriguez (10-10) gave up three runs and five hits over seven innings. The rookie left-hander is 1-4 in September, his only losing month this season.
Matt Murton's homer in the fourth tied the game, and Lee put the Cubs ahead 2-1 in the sixth with a 401-foot drive off the facade behind the seats in left field.
Jeromy Burnitz was hit by a pitch by Rodriguez leading off the seventh, then went to third base after shortstop Everett's throwing error on a grounder by Michael Barrett. Burnitz came home on a wild pitch, but Barrett was thrown out when the Cubs tried a squeeze play -- Rusch was unable to get his bat on a pitch that bounced in front of the plate and was scooped up by Chavez.
Jason Lane led off the Astros' seventh with a long flyball to left, but Murton made a leaping catch against the hand-operated scoreboard. That was the 12th straight batter retired by Rusch.
Rusch struck out five with one walk over seven innings, while allowing two runs and lowering his September ERA to 3.41. The left-hander was 0-6 in eight starts before that.
- If the Astros and Phillies end tied, the tiebreaking game would be Monday in Philadelphia.
- Berkman has 10 homers in September, after hitting one in 28 games from July 30 until Aug. 31.
- Astros rookie Willy Taveras had an infield single in the third, a dribbler that Rusch couldn't handle off the mound. It was his major league-best 70th infield hit.
- The Cubs are 23-27 against left-handed starters, 13-9 on the road.
- Bagwell, who missed 115 games after right shoulder surgery, is 3-for-9 with three RBI as a pinch hitter -- his only action since being activated Sept. 9.