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Zambrano great on mound, at plate

Zambrano great on mound, at plate

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CINCINNATI -- The last time Carlos Zambrano pitched at Great American Ball Park was Opening Day, and he struggled against the Cincinnati Reds. The revamped and improved Zambrano was on the mound Sunday, and he's looking like the pitcher who predicted he'd win a National League Cy Young award someday.

Zambrano became the first 14-game winner in the Major Leagues on Sunday, leading the Cubs to a 6-0 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Big Z is two wins shy of matching his career high of 16. The right-hander gave up two hits, walked three and struck out six over 7 1/3 innings to win for the ninth time in his last 11 starts. The only hits were a two-out single in the first by Brandon Phillips and a bloop single with two outs in the seventh by Javier Valentin.

Since starting the season over on June 6, Zambrano is 9-2 with a 1.41 ERA (12 earned runs in 76 2/3 innings) and has struck out 77. Has he ever been on such a good streak?

"I don't think so," Zambrano said. "I think this is the best stretch I've ever had in my career. I feel good right now. Ever since I lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last game of the first half, I feel comfortable on the mound, I feel confident. Hopefully I can keep doing a good job for my team."

Zambrano (14-7) got a standing ovation from the Cubs fans in the crowd of 33,061 at Great American Ball Park when he came to bat in the eighth and he delivered his third single of the game. The three hits tied a career high, accomplished on July 20, 2003, at Florida.

"He's in a zone," Derrek Lee said of Zambrano. "When you score two runs in the first with Z on the mound, you feel pretty good about yourself. He's pitching great. Just keep him healthy and he'll carry us the rest of the way."

Zambrano is now 9-1 in 11 starts away from Wrigley Field this year, and he's 27-7 in his last 45 road starts.

"I try to do the same job at home and away," Zambrano said.

"It's somewhat rare that you see that, but the good ones can win at home and on the road, and Zambrano is certainly that," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.

Zambrano had some potential distractions. A very white Mobil ad behind home plate made it difficult for some of the players on the field to see the ball in the Reds' fifth. Play was halted briefly, but Zambrano kept pitching.

Ryan Freel also hit a line drive off Zambrano's right ankle in the sixth. The ball deflected toward Aramis Ramirez at third and he threw Freel out in time. Zambrano barely flinched, but when he left the game after one out in the Reds eighth, he was pointing to his right leg. He apparently had cramps in his thigh but isn't expected to miss a start.

Nothing seems to faze Zambrano lately.

"Any time I can do something for myself -- pitching, running, fielding, kicking the ball, whatever -- it's good for me," Zambrano said. "I have to be able to use what God gave me and use the ability."

He effectively attacked the strike zone.

"In the sixth inning, I had only 25 balls and that's good," Zambrano said. "That means you're attacking the strike zone. Just let the hitter hit a ground ball or use your pitches for them to hit a ground ball to make an out."

Lee belted a two-run homer, his second in as many games, Angel Pagan hit a two-run single and Ramirez added a RBI double for the Cubs, now 23-9 over their last 32 games and a Major League-best 33-17 since June 3.

"It was a good road trip. We won both series and you can't be disappointed in that," Lee said. "We're in great position. We're sitting right there. We have a lot of baseball to go. We have to continue to play well."

The Cubs gave Zambrano a 2-0 lead in the first. They had two on and one out in the first against Reds starter Matt Belisle (5-8) when Ramirez smacked an opposite-field RBI double and Mark DeRosa hit a sacrifice fly.

Alfonso Soriano thought he'd made it 4-0 with his 19th homer in the second. With two outs, Zambrano singled, and Soriano lofted the ball to left. Some fans tried to catch the ball, which bounced back onto the field. Third-base umpire Joe West ruled fan interference, and Soriano was held to a double and Zambrano stopped at third.

Piniella argued the ball had cleared the wall, but West said no and maintained that stance after conferring with the other umpires. After the inning ended, Cubs pitcher Ted Lilly tried to get West's attention from the dugout to tell him the ball had gone out. West didn't have the benefit of instant replay.

By the way, the fans were wearing Reds T-shirts.

"It snuck in there," Piniella said of the ball, then dismissed the incident. "Anyway, the story of this game is Zambrano and his pitching. Forget his hitting -- just his pitching."

There was no question in the Chicago seventh when Lee connected on his 11th homer, which just cleared the right-field fence. Soriano scored on the hit, which chased Belisle.

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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