Cubs bring sizzle to steamy Wrigley

Cubs bring sizzle to steamy Wrigley

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs starting pitchers have been doing the job on the mound and at the plate lately, and on Sunday, Carlos Zambrano nearly completed an impossible acrobatic play that would be fitting for Cirque du Soleil.

Zambrano hit a two-run double and held the Pittsburgh Pirates to five hits over eight innings in the Cubs' 8-2 victory, their sixth win in the last seven games.

Zambrano got plenty of offensive help as Derrek Lee hit his Major League-leading 28th home run, and Jeromy Burnitz and Aramis Ramirez each hit an RBI single, a solo homer and a double in the 15-hit attack. Burnitz connected on his 15th homer with two outs in the fourth, while Ramirez led off the seventh with his 21st.

But it was Zambrano's daredevil defensive play in the fifth that was the highlight. He reached up and tried to barehand Matt Lawton's single, which he ended up deflecting toward second base. Zambrano then chased down the ball and tried to long-snap it to Lee at first, like a football center would to a quarterback. Lawton was safe, and Zambrano apparently lost his balance and turned a backwards somersault on the infield dirt.

"He makes that play and I just keep running into a brick wall," Lawton said. "It's the kind of day we had today. He almost made it. He almost had it."

The Cubs cringed when they saw Zambrano stick his right hand up -- his pitching hand -- to try and catch the ball.

"I just worry that he's going to get hurt," Cubs catcher Michael Barrett said. "He's a great athlete and he really reacts. In Venezuela, you see Omar Vizquel and a lot of fielders field with their hands because where they come from, the fields are rough."

"We've been trying to stop him of that, but it's an instinctive thing to do," Cubs manager Dusty Baker said. "He almost made a great play on it. He threw the ball great today. That's probably the lowest pitch count he's had for a long time."

"I think if you asked him, he'd probably tell you he could play shortstop," Cubs second baseman Todd Walker said. "He's an athlete for as big as he is. It was funny, but had he thrown it on line under his legs, that would've been one of the more impressive plays I've seen in my life. He just dominated both at the plate and at the mound. That's him. He's good."

The Cubs starting pitchers have been very good lately, giving up eight earned runs in 52 2/3 innings over the last seven games for a 1.37 ERA. They are 6-1 in that stretch.

"We're kind of clicking on the same page," Lee said. "For a while, we had good pitching and couldn't hit, or we'd hit and not get good pitching. But right now, we're on the same page and we're playing great baseball."


"For a while, we had good pitching and couldn't hit, or we'd hit and not get good pitching. But right now, we're on the same page and we're playing great baseball."
-- Derrek Lee

Zambrano (7-4) gave up one run -- unearned. He's settled down since his rough start June 22 against Milwaukee, when he was charged with eight runs in 1 2/3 innings. Maybe it was watching the athletic moves of the soccer match Saturday night between Chivas Guadalajara and Real Madrid that inspired Zambrano. What was his take on the acrobatic play in the fifth?

"I always say 'natural reaction,'" Zambrano said of his instinctive grab with his right hand for the ball. "I almost made the play -- natural reaction."

"I was just laughing," Lee said. "It was funny to watch. He's so athletic, he almost pulled that play off."

Lee, the league's leading hitter at .372, connected with two outs in the first, and is four home runs shy of his career high of 32, which he set last season.

"That's the least of my worries," Lee said. "It's been a great season personally, but we're focused on trying to play two good months of baseball.

"We went home early last year and we don't want to go home early this year," Lee said. "We're feeling good, but we've got a long way to go. We need to continue this for the next two months."

It'll be easy if they can keep the offense going. The Cubs sent 10 batters to the plate in the third against starter Kip Wells (6-10). With one out, Walker, Lee, Burnitz and Ramirez singled, with Burnitz and Ramirez each driving in a run. Todd Hollandsworth walked to load the bases and Burnitz was forced at home on Neifi Perez's fielder's choice. Barrett then hit an RBI single, and Zambrano followed with a two-run double to chase Wells and open a 6-0 lead.

The Cubs starting pitchers did well at the plate in this series, going 5-for-12 with five RBIs. There's a little competition going among the starters to see who leads at the end of the year in total bases. Kerry Wood and Mark Prior don't get any exemptions because they've been on the disabled list this year.

All Zambrano has to do is keep pitching like he did on Sunday and leave the glovework to his teammates.

"We're here to do our job and we have the same job to do, which is to go out there and stop the other team," Zambrano said. "We have a good enough team and good enough pitching rotation to win our division."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.