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HOU@CHC: Barney belts a two-run homer to left field

CHICAGO -- Jeff Samardzija, one of the old young Cubs, finally got a little offensive help.

Samardzija matched a career high with 11 strikeouts, and Darwin Barney and Alfonso Soriano each hit a two-run homer to lift the Cubs to a 7-1 victory over the Astros on Monday night for their second win in the last 12 games.

"Any time your eight-hole hitter is hitting two-run home runs, it's going to be a good day," Samardzija said.

Five runs is a lot for Samardzija (8-10), who had received two runs or fewer of support in each of his last six starts. The 11 Ks equal his career high, set on July 2 against the Braves. He gave up four hits over seven innings, including pinch-hitter Brandon Barnes' first Major League home run leading off the sixth.

The five runs is also a lot for the Cubs, who have scuffled in their last 11 games, being shut out four times. They entered Monday's contest batting .199 in that stretch.

Barney, who began the year with two home runs in 608 Major League at-bats, got things started when he hit his sixth with one on and two outs in the second, lining a 1-1 pitch from Armando Galarraga (0-3) into the left-field bleachers.

Soriano belted his 21st of the season with one on in the fifth, and now is two RBIs shy of 1,000 in his career. All of his home runs have come since May 15, the second most in the National League in that stretch behind Arizona's Jason Kubel (22).

Samardzija benefited.

"Obviously, that [splitter] showed up tonight," manager Dale Sveum said of Samardzija's out pitch. "It was pretty devastating, as well as his velocity, and everything was pretty good. He had his back-door slider, [he was] able to get back in counts. Everything was working tonight."

Samardzija's goal, in his first season as a starter, is to finish strong. With the departures of Paul Maholm and Ryan Dempster at the non-waiver Trade Deadline and the loss of Matt Garza to injury, Samardzija is suddenly the ace of the pitching staff, although he doesn't see it that way.

"I'm not looking too much into it when it comes to being a leader," Samardzija said. "I feel like my whole life, I've done things on the field. I'm not a big vocal guy, I'm not a big rah-rah guy, but with this young team, whatever older guys we do have really need to step up and play every day and show these guys how to play here at Wrigley every day.

"Everybody's learning, everybody's trying to hit their stride. The young guys who have come up have played great defense, which is really important. You're not always going to hit, but with [Brett] Jackson and [Josh] Vitters, they can play defense, and you start to learn that helps the team out big time, and when the bats come along, they come along.

"The foundation comes from playing defense and pitching good. Everything else after that just comes with the game."

That "foundation" may be the one that Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, stressed when he took over last October. The Cubs' focus is to build a "foundation for sustained success," and such players as Samardzija, Barney, Jackson and Vitters can be part of that. They're certainly taking advantage of the final seven-plus weeks of the season.

"[We're] learning, getting better," Barney said. "We've got a lot of guys trying to develop their routines in the big leagues, and that's one of the biggest things they have to do here, is be ready to play every single day. The only way to do that is to develop that routine and follow guys like Soriano, who have that routine and work really hard both defensively and offensively. They have a good leader in him to follow. We have to get better at that."

Now that Maholm, Dempster, Reed Johnson and Jeff Baker are gone, the Cubs have few veterans. So is Samardzija, 27, a young guy or an old guy?

"I'm a young guy, but I'm old," he said. "'Old soul,' I believe it's called."

Samardzija also can be pretty dominating. The eight wins matches his career high -- he went 8-2 in 2011.

"He's one of those guys [who] when he's on, it's tough, especially a guy who throw up to 96, 97 [mph]," the Astros' Tyler Greene said. "The pitch for him is the splitter. That's a tough pitch to hit when he's on with it, and he's going to give anyone a challenge. You have to tip your cap to him when he's able to locate and keep that splitter down like that."

Samardzija wasn't counting the Ks.

"I knew I was on a good run there in the middle of the game," said the right-hander, who struck out five in a row. "[Garza] came up to me after the game and said, 'Hey, can't get that elusive 12.' He has a way of letting you know. If anyone isn't paying attention, he is."

By the way, Garza's career high is 12 strikeouts, which would explain the razzing.

Before the game, Sveum talked about how he'll be mixing and matching his lineup as team executives evaluate some of the young players. Reminded that Monday's combo worked pretty well, Sveum admitted it may be the same on Tuesday.

"Those kids are here for one reason -- they're young, but they have the talent," Soriano said. "They have to have more confidence, more experience in the big leagues."

It's just a matter of time.

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