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Zambrano, Cubs fall in finale vs. Bucs

Zambrano, Cubs fall in finale

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PITTSBURGH -- If Carlos Zambrano starts the second half the way he finished the first half, the Cubs should be in good shape.

Jason Bay hit a two-run homer, the fifth of his career off Zambrano, and added a two-run single in the eighth off Bob Howry to power the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 6-2 victory Sunday over the Cubs and close the first half.

The Cubs head into the All-Star break 4 1/2 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers, who also lost on Sunday. Chicago manager Lou Piniella guided the team to a 44-43 record, a significant improvement over a year ago when the Cubs were 34-54 at the midway point. They've gone 22-12 since June 3, which ranks among the best in baseball in that stretch.

On this trip to Washington and Pittsburgh, the Cubs finished 4-3.

"When we left town, we talked about a winning record on this trip," Piniella said. "We said 4-3 would be very acceptable, and 5-2 would be good. We got ourselves in a really nice position and we had a good matchup today -- their left-handed pitcher [Shane Youman] threw the ball well -- and we just didn't quite get it done. So, be satisfied with 4-3, enjoy your break, come back on Friday, and start playing baseball."

Zambrano (10-7) will open the second half Friday against Houston. He'll be back on a familiar mound at Wrigley Field, which should help. On Sunday, he switched to pitching out of the stretch after the fourth inning because he couldn't get comfortable on the PNC Park mound.

"I had a rough time in the first inning with my windup," Zambrano said. "I was pitching out of the stretch, and I was feeling more comfortable and staying closed with my delivery."

He switched in the fourth inning, and retired the last nine batters he faced in order. For the game, he gave up three runs on four hits and three walks while striking out five over seven innings.

"All of our pitchers the whole series weren't comfortable with the mound," Cubs catcher Koyie Hill said. "I don't know if that had anything to do with it. He got better as the game went on, that's for sure. He made adjustments and was throwing the ball really well at the end. It was one of those days."

"He pitched well enough," Piniella said of Zambrano. "We didn't generate too much offense. The three runs they scored in the eighth put the game away."

The Cubs' homer-less streak is now a season-high nine games. The last time they went this long was a 10-game stretch July 14-21, 1988.

"We haven't hit the ball out of the ballpark," Piniella said. "Sooner or later, we have to start scoring a few runs that way.

"You score six, seven runs a ballgame, it doesn't really matter," he said. "The problem is it's hard to score six runs consistently and not get an occasional dinger. I hope that part of it perks up."

Even though Piniella will spend the All-Star break in Tampa, Fla., he'll be on the phone with Cubs general manager Jim Hendry to talk about possibly finding another right-handed bat in the system to help against left-handed pitchers.

The Cubs took a 1-0 lead in the second, when they loaded the bases on consecutive singles by Aramis Ramirez, Mark DeRosa and Mike Fontenot, and Angel Pagan hit a sacrifice fly. They closed to 3-2 in the sixth, when DeRosa hit a two-out RBI double. The Cubs had runners at first and second to open the inning but Ramirez hit into a double play. That was it.

Zambrano walked Nate McLouth to start the third, and he stole second, advanced on Hill's throwing error, and scored on Xavier Nady's two-out single. Bay followed with his 13th homer. Only Adam Dunn has hit more off Big Z, with six.

On Sept. 19, 2003, Bay went 3-for-4 with eight RBIs, hitting a double and two homers off Zambrano in a 10-9 Cubs win. The next Spring Training, Zambrano taped Bay's baseball card to his locker as motivation. No telling if Big Z will find the card.

"Numbers can lie," Bay said. "He's not the type of guy you enjoy facing. He's not the kind of guy you want to face. How I explain it is, I had this game against him back in '03 when I hit two homers and had eight RBIs. Ever since then, [the numbers] have kind of gone down."

Zambrano also has struck out Bay 14 times.

"I either strike him out or he hits a home run," Zambrano said. "He's a good hitter. He's a good hitter in the big leagues. You can't make a mistake against good hitters. They make you pay."

Bay didn't think he had to send Zambrano a 2007 card.

"I don't think he needs any more motivation," Bay said.

Piniella wasn't aware of the history between Zambrano and Bay.

"I don't know that," Piniella said. "My history is about three months."

If Zambrano is looking for motivation, it could be in the news that White Sox pitcher Mark Buehrle had signed a new four-year contract with the team. Zambrano will be a free agent at the end of this season, and has deferred any conversation regarding a potential new deal with the team to his agent.

Since Big Z declared he was starting the season over with his start June 6, he is 5-2 with a 1.75 ERA.

"I'll come back in the second half of the season ready to go," said Zambrano, who was headed home to Venezuela for the All-Star break. "On Friday, I get to pitch against Houston. It's a new half. We'll see what happens in the second half. We're ready for the second half. I know we can start how we finished in the first half."

The team will be keeping an eye on the Brewers.

"It made me feel good when one of the coaches told me that when Milwaukee got beat [Saturday night], the players showed some excitement," Piniella said. "That's good. It means they care and they want to do well and they want to win. That's the important thing."

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

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