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HOU@CHC: Maxwell cranks a three-run homer to tie game

CHICAGO -- The players exchanged goodbye handshakes and hugs as they packed their bags and headed to places far and wide, away from Wrigley Field and the rigors of a 162-game schedule.

As the Astros put the wraps on a 2012 season that saw them lose more games than any team in franchise history, the season's final play -- a bases-loaded walk-off single by Bryan LaHair in the ninth inning that gave the Cubs a 5-4 win -- represented the end of an era.

The Astros, wearing their road gray uniforms with the open star logo on their caps for the final time, played their last game as a member of the National League. The rough-and-tumble American League West awaits them next year.

"We didn't win as much as we wanted to, but to finish strong, it gives everybody a good feeling going home," shortstop Jed Lowrie said.

With a sparse crowd watching on a dreary fall day, the Astros capped their 51-year stay in the NL by seeing their three-game winning streak snapped. They finished the season 55-107, setting a franchise record for most losses in a season.

But the players are taking satisfaction in playing .500 ball (15-15) in the last month of the season.

"Just the way we finished, we knocked the Brewers out of playoff contention and really played well this last few weeks," outfielder Justin Maxwell said. "If we, individually, work on the things we know we have to get better at, we're going to better as a team."

The growing pains the Astros endured this year weren't unexpected, considering the club is still in the early stages of its rebuilding project and jettisoned many of its veteran players at the Trade Deadline in return for prospects.

"The last couple of weeks, we were able to win series and we won the last two series," infielder Tyler Greene said. "You always want to finish strong, and I know it's tough at this point of the year to stay in it and keep pushing and keep trying to get better every time, and I think we did a good job."

The Astros will enter the AL next season with 3,999 all-time victories and a new manager, with Nationals third-base coach Bo Porter set to take over when Washington's playoff run is over. They'll also enter the AL with a new color scheme and new logo, which only added to the air of finality on Wednesday.

Tony DeFrancesco, who took over the club on Aug. 19 following the dismissal of Brad Mills, was proud of the way the team played down the stretch.

"I went around to everybody and thanked them for everything they did and told them I appreciate it," he said. "They're ready to go home. It's been a long season and a lot of them are leaving right from here to their home, and some are going to Houston, but like I said, it's been a memory I'll always have."

The Astros entered the game looking to sweep the Cubs like they did when they joined the NL in 1962 as the Colt .45s, but the Cubs roughed up Astros starter Edgar Gonzalez for four runs in 3 1/3 innings.

Gonzalez, who was 3-0 in three road starts with the Astros this year, pitched a scoreless first inning before LaHair launched a homer to left field to start the second inning. That snapped the Astros' scoreless innings streak at 28, which is tied for the fourth-longest in the Majors this year and the fourth-longest in Astros history.

The Astros were trailing, 4-1, in the eighth inning when Maxwell launched his team-leading 18th homer of the season, a three-run blast that tied the game. The Cubs loaded the bases in the ninth for LaHair, who ripped a two-out single to right field, igniting a huge celebration the field.

"It's nice to have a walk-off win to finish the year off and after the problems with the season and everything like that, the best way you can finish the season is be at home and have a walk-off win," Cubs manager Dale Sveum said.

As the Cubs partied on the field, the Astros quietly disappeared into the dugout, their stay in the NL over. They'll emerge next year in a division and with a new look, and, they hope, with some better results.

"If you just look at the records this year in the West, there's three quality teams and the Mariners are kind of up and coming as well," Lowrie said. "It's going to be some stiff competition, but I think it'll be good for everybody. We'll prepare and see how it goes."

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