• Hunt for October: The Cubs began the day with a 1½-game lead over Milwaukee, which takes on Atlanta on Saturday night.
• Hero: Soriano has four home runs in three games and 13 in the 25 contests since he came off the disabled list Aug. 28.
• Unsung heroes: Aramis Ramirez, who had two homers Friday, added another and Derrek Lee also went deep for Chicago.
• Figure this: After hitting only 106 homers in the first five months of the season, the Cubs have connected for 36 in the first three weeks of September.
• Quotable: "This is the time of the year you hope that your big people get hot and carry you and that's exactly what's happening. It's coming at just the right time." -- Cubs manager Lou Piniella
-- ESPN.com news services
Cubs 9, Pirates 5
CHICAGO (AP) -- Alfonso Soriano's slow start is long forgotten. Now that summer is turning to fall, Soriano is where he expected to be -- leading the Chicago Cubs as they make a serious postseason run.
Soriano hit two homers Saturday -- giving him 11 this month -- and the Cubs kept up their late-season power display to beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 9-5 and solidify their lead in the NL Central. Chicago has won 9 of 11.
"I got my timing at the right time. September is the last month and the team needed that offense," Soriano said, adding that he's playing his best baseball of the year.
The Cubs extended their lead to 2½ games over Milwaukee, which
lost 4-3 in 11 innings at Atlanta.
"It's nothing yet," Soriano said. "We have seven games left and we have to play like we played yesterday and today to make sure we make the playoffs," Soriano said.
The Cubs hit four homers for a second straight game.
Soriano hit a solo shot to tie the game in the second and a two-run blast in the fifth for his team-leading 31st homer -- not bad considering he had no homers at all in April and only four in May.
Soriano now has four home runs in his last three games and 13 in the 25 games since he came off the disabled list Aug. 28. He added a two-run double in the seventh to tie his career high with five RBIs.
"What he's done through September is amazing," said Cubs teammate Mark DeRosa, who also was Soriano's teammate in Texas.
After hitting only 106 homers in the first five months of the season, the Cubs have connected for 36 in the first three weeks of September.
"This is the time of the year you hope that your big people get hot and carry you and that's exactly what's happening. It's coming at just the right time," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "These are big-game people."
The Pirates lost their eighth straight, their longest losing streak of the season.
Pittsburgh starter Zach Duke (3-8), making his second appearance and first start since June 28 after spending more than two months on the disabled list because of a sore left elbow, had been especially effective against the Cubs in his career. He entered the game with a 4-1 record and 1.57 ERA against them but they jumped on him quickly, scoring in each of the first three innings.
The lefty lasted just four innings, giving up nine hits and five runs -- four of them earned.
"They're hungry. They can smell the playoffs. They are playing like a totally different team than we saw earlier in the year. They are playing like a playoff team," Duke said of the Cubs, who have split 14 games with the Pirates this season.
Manager Jim Tracy said he plans to give Duke another start before the season ends.
"Obviously I want to go out on a high note. I want to establish that, 'Hey, I'm still a good pitcher,' " Duke said. "I feel like -- although if you look at the scoreboard you wouldn't think so -- I feel like I took a step in the right direction."
Rich Hill (10-8) got the win with five innings of work, yielding five hits and three runs.
Lee, who went 4-for-5, homered in the first. The Cubs then got three straight singles from Ramirez, Matt Murton and Geovany Soto. Soto's ball ricocheted off the mound and went to second baseman Freddy Sanchez, who threw past first for an error allowing Ramirez to score to make it 2-0.
Pittsburgh got three runs in the top of the second with four hits, including an RBI double from Mat Kata and a two-run single past third from Duke.
But Soriano tied the game with his 30th homer in the second, and the Cubs took the lead on Ramirez's two-run homer in the third. His 26th homer gave Ramirez 100 RBIs.
Soriano hit a two-run shot in the fifth off Salomon Torres.
Cesar Izturis, who had to leave Friday's game because of elbow irritation, pinch hit in the fifth. ... Piniella said Steve Trachsel will start Thursday's game at Florida, the finale of a three-game series against the Marlins. Trachsel threw a simulated game after Saturday's win. The Cubs then end the season with three games in Cincinnati. ... Chicago rookie outfielder Sam Fuld, a late-season call-up, made a great catch while crashing into the brick wall in the seventh inning to snare Nyjer Morgan's line drive and then threw back to first to double off McLouth for a double play. ... An announced crowd of 41,271 ran 2007 attendance at Wrigley Field to 3,211,098 -- a single-season franchise record.