Zambrano, who smiled mischievously at that remark, stayed in the game, mentally and physically, and wound up being just five outs from throwing the Cubs' first no-hitter since Milt Pappas did it nearly 35 years ago. But Zambrano ended up a hard-luck loser, going the distance in a 1-0 loss to the Padres in front of 41,632 at Wrigley Field.
It was the third time in Zambrano's career that he took a no-hitter into the eighth, but once again, Pappas' mark, set on Sept. 2, 1972, is still safe.
After losing the no-hitter on a single in the eighth, Zambrano (7-6) still had the shutout going until Russell Branyan golfed a low 3-2 split-finger changeup over the wall in left-center with one out in the ninth.
"The only thing that makes me mad is they should have to beat me with my best pitch, the fastball," Zambrano said. "I threw hard for nine innings, and I should've thrown a fastball. It was a good pitch, the changeup, but the guy is strong. What can I say?"
Derrek Lee and Padres pitcher Chris Young traded missed punches in the fourth, after Young hit Lee with a pitch to start the inning. Both players were ejected, as were Cubs hitting coach Gerald Perry and Jake Peavy. The teams congregated behind home plate, and after some shoving and minor contact, the game continued.
The Cubs' hitting attack, however, never really started. Chicago managed just two hits, a pair of doubles by Mark DeRosa and Ryan Theriot. Both came against Justin Hampson, Young's replacement. Aside from those two hits, Hampson, Heath Bell (1-2) and Trevor Hoffman (19th save) were perfect through their six innings, continuing San Diego's bullpen success.
"We just didn't get to their staff at all," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.
Zambrano pitched 7 1/3 no-hit innings before Marcus Giles broke it up with an infield single off the righty's outstretched glove. Zambrano was five outs from a no-hitter on June 5, 2006, at Houston, and four outs from one on Aug. 22, 2003, at Arizona.
"I have a long career," Zambrano said. "Hopefully I can get one."
In perhaps his best outing of an up-and-down season, Zambrano gave up two hits, walked five (one intentionally) and struck out six, throwing 123 pitches in nine innings. It was his first complete game since Sept. 18, 2005 (a 7-4 win over St. Louis). Zambrano walked Rob Bowen to start the eighth and struck out Jose Cruz Jr., before Giles hit a chopper on Zambrano's 104th pitch that bounced off the dirt in front of home plate and caromed off the pitcher's outstretched glove.
Zambrano said he was indecisive about going for the catch, thinking shortstop Cesar Izturis, who came into the game as a pinch-runner for Lee in the fourth, could make the play behind him. But after Zambrano nicked the ball, he thought about throwing to second to get Bowen on the force play, but he couldn't come up with it.
"It was a weird play," Zambrano said.
The Padres got runners in scoring position in the fifth and sixth, thanks to a pair of Cubs errors and a few walks by Zambrano, but each time, the pitcher got out of the jam with double plays. Zambrano robbed Hiram Bocachica of a hit in the seventh with an off-balance throw to first on a ball hit to the left of the mound, and he got out of the eighth with a double play.
"When he's on the field, he's the best athlete out there," Cubs catcher Koyie Hill said.
Hill, who's been superb at handling the Cubs staff since his callup earlier this month, said they planned on throwing that pitch to Branyan in that situation, following the hitter's first at-bat.
"It was a great pitch, but he got the barrel on it," Hill said. "Initially, I thought it was a popup, but it sounded good. When you see two of the fastest guys in the league [Alfonso Soriano and Felix Pie] pull up around the gap, you know you're in trouble."
The Cubs had a chance to take the lead in the fifth. Theriot led off with a double to right and stole third as Hill struck out. Zambrano lofted a fly ball to shallow right-center and Bocachica easily nailed Theriot trying to score.
"The worst part of today was we lost a quality start by Zambrano," Cubs outfielder Cliff Floyd said. "When you pitch like that, you want him to go home with a 'W.'"