<
>

Chicago's dumped five of last six

CHICAGO (AP) -- Mark Prior pitched his best game of the season.
Still, he couldn't stop the Chicago Cubs' final-week slump that has
damaged their chances of making the postseason.

"It's not from a lack of preparation. It's not from a lack of
trying. It just hasn't worked out. I don't have a philosophical
quote about it. We lost," Prior said Thursday after the loose and
pressure-free Cincinnati Reds beat the Cubs in 12 innings for the
second straight day.

Chicago fell for the fifth time in six games and dropped a game
behind idle Houston for the NL wild card with three games left.

Javier Valentin hit a two-out double in the 12th to give
Cincinnati a 2-1 victory, wasting Prior's stellar nine-inning
effort that saw him tie his career high with 16 strikeouts.

"I think we all know where we're at right now," Prior said.
"I could care less about me personally. It's not about me."

It's mainly about the Cubs' offense -- or lack of it.

Chicago had the bases loaded three times and didn't score, and
stranded 12 runners.

"It's tough to lose two 12-inning games in a row, especially
when we had opportunities to win the game," a dejected Cubs
manager Dusty Baker said.

"It's tough to lose like this down the stretch."

Adam Dunn, who earlier broke Bobby Bonds' major league record
for strikeouts in a single season when he fanned in his first two
at-bats, singled in the 12th off Mike Remlinger (1-2). Dunn stole
second and moved to third on a grounder before Valentin doubled to
right off Kyle Farnsworth.

"We beat these guys. We won three out of four and, here in
Chicago, that is tough," Valentin said.

"Obviously it's tough on them and the town, but we can't come
in here and just roll over," said Cincinnati's Austin Kearns, the
hero in Wednesday's 4-3 win, who came back and homered off Prior on
Thursday.

Chicago loaded the bases for the third time in the 11th, but
Juan Padilla (1-0) escaped by striking out Michael Barrett.

Pinch-hitter Jose Macias singled to start the bottom of the 12th
and reached second on a one-out sacrifice by Nomar Garciaparra.
Aramis Ramirez walked before Moises Alou flied to center to end the
game and perhaps Chicago's chances of returning to the postseason.

Garciaparra said he bunted with one out and Reds third baseman
Felipe Lopez back because he was hoping for a hit or to at least
move Macias into scoring position. But like most everything the
Cubs tried, it didn't work.

"Surprised? Absolutely surprised," Garciaparra said of the
Cubs' precarious standing as they get ready for a closing
three-game series with the Braves, while the Astros play at home
against Colorado.

"We expected to be in a certain position," he said. "We
expected to just be looking at what we're doing and not worrying
about other boxscores."

Prior had 13 strikeouts through the first six innings, fanning
the side in the second and sixth innings. He was also part of major
league history when he struck out Dunn in the second and fourth
innings, giving the slugger a major league single-season record of
190 whiffs, one more than Bonds in 1970.

Prior struck out Dunn for a third time in the seventh but with
two outs Kearns -- who'd hurt the Cubs with a tying double and
winning homer Wednesday -- homered off the left-field foul pole to
tie it at 1.

"One run should have been enough. It should have been enough.
The stuff that I had today, I knew what I had," Prior said.

"I don't know what else to say."

Sammy Sosa, just 3-for-22 in his previous six games, hit his
34th homer in the sixth -- the 573rd of his career, tying Harmon
Killebrew for seventh place on the career list.

But the Cubs didn't get much else off Reds starter Aaron Harang,
who allowed just four hits and the run in seven strong innings.

The Cubs had the bases loaded in the second and fourth innings
but Harang retired Prior both times to end the inning, first on a
strikeout and then on a hard fielder's choice grounder to second.

Game notes
The Cubs finish the season with three home games against
the Braves. If they need a win Sunday to get in, they'll turn to
ex-Braves star Greg Maddux to beat his former team. ... Dunn, with
101 RBI, has the highest total of any player in the majors without
a sacrifice fly. ... Padilla's win was his first in the majors. He
entered with a 12.71 ERA. ... The Reds won despite striking out a
season-high 19 times.