CHICAGO -- When Jose Cisnero was pitching at Triple-A Oklahoma City in April, he probably couldn't have imagined that by June he'd be pitching in the eighth inning of a tie ball game in front of a hostile crowd at Wrigley Field with the Astros' hopes for a win riding on his arm.
But Cisnero shut down the Cubs in the seventh inning and induced a Darwin Barney popout with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth. He preserved the tie long enough for Ronny Cedeno to drop a safety squeeze bunt to bring the winning run home in the top of the ninth of Houston's 4-3 triumph in Chicago on Saturday.
"He's been tremendous this entire year, and that there was a great atmosphere to put him in," Astros manager Bo Porter said. "He answered the call and did a tremendous job making quality pitch after quality pitch. I'll tell you what I liked, his facial expression and emotion never changed."
Cisnero said his two-seam fastball had more dramatic movement when he came out for the eighth inning, and he was hesitant to throw the pitch after Alfonso Soriano hit one for a double with one out in the inning. After the right-hander intentionally walked Anthony Rizzo, Cisnero turned and fired to Cedeno at second to pick off Soriano on a controversial call for the second out of the inning.
"I know it's not an easy job they have, but when I get mad at something [the umpires] call it's because I'm 100 percent [sure] I have the right call," Soriano said. "I knew I was safe."
Cisnero caught the break and he then had the confidence to go back to his fastball to get Barney for the final out when the bases were loaded and the pressure was on.
Porter called Saturday's victory a true team win. For Cisnero to be pitching in a pressure-packed situation, left fielder J.D. Martinez had to hit a game-tying three-run homer in the sixth. For Cisnero's effort to mean anything, the Astros had to come through in the ninth.
With the tie preserved, Astros right fielder Justin Maxwell led off the top of the ninth with a double. Then Porter called for two straight bunts to move him to third and score him, and Cedeno's perfect squeeze gave the Astros the run they needed.
"That was part of the plan, looking at the situation and where we were at, bullpen-wise, knowing that we had good speed on the basepath," Porter said. "Ronny did a good job. Justin did a good job with his read and good execution all the way around."
Early on, the Astros struggled to generate any sort of execution on offense.
For five innings, the Astros couldn't figure out Cubs left-hander Travis Wood. Then one swing of Martinez's bat quieted the crowd and breathed new life into the visiting dugout. Wood had faced two hitters over the minimum through five innings before the home run, but the Astros' entirely right-handed lineup finally broke through.
Astros starter Bud Norris didn't receive the run support early enough to capture the win, but he turned in another strong outing. He entered Saturday's game 1-3 with a 2.77 ERA in his last six starts and was replaced by Cisnero after allowing three runs (two earned) over six innings of work, striking out five. He said the heat bothered him throughout the day, but was proud of his team for rallying.
"The elements were tough," Norris said. "I had a good plan going in. [Catcher Carlos] Corporan was good behind the plate. He kept me where I needed to be and he gets a lot of credit and the guys that make the play behind you. I definitely got out of some jams there, but this is a team win."
Norris didn't surrender a hit until the bottom of the third inning, but poor defense behind him extended the frame until Chicago scored first. After Cubs catcher Welington Castillo knocked a pitch into center field, Barney hit a routine ball to third base. Third baseman Matt Dominguez fired the ball high to a leaping Cedeno, who missed the base at second and couldn't relay the ball to first in time to get Barney.
With Wood at the dish, Corporan fired the ball to second base in an attempt to pick off Castillo, but the ball hit the Cubs' catcher on the foot and caromed into the outfield to advance both runners. Chicago leadoff man Luis Valbuena made the Astros pay for their defensive miscues. Norris threw a hanging slider that Valbuena deposited into center for a two-run single.
Chicago outfielder Nate Schierholtz added to the lead in the fifth and provided the final blemish on Norris' record for the day with a solo shot over the right-field wall that gave Chicago a 3-0 lead heading into the sixth.
Then Martinez tied the game with his seventh home run of the year. Porter said the home run wouldn't have been possible without Altuve's preceding two-out at-bat. The shortstop forced a tough 3-1 count that made Wood throw a difficult 3-2 pitch that Altuve hit for a single to prolong the inning.
"I tell you what, I thought that Altuve's at-bat prior to the three-run homer probably was the biggest at-bat of the game," Porter said. "He forced their guy into a stressful 3-2 pitch that kind of led to [Chris] Carter getting a good pitch to hit and then obviously J.D. with the big three-run homer."
But what started as a battle of aces turned into a battle of bullpens. Cisnero and closer Jose Veras combined for three scoreless innings to close out the game.
A day after three Cubs home runs sunk the Astros, some power hitting of its own kept Houston in business until it could squeeze one out in the ninth.
"Comeback win to [take the lead] in the ninth, that's a big road win," Norris said. "We have a chance to go out there and win this series tomorrow."
Ethan Asofsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.