"We won three in a row then?" he asked, dressing in his corner locker at Chase Field before heading back to Chicago. "It's gonna be tough. We just have to get to playing ball again. We don't have to worry about anything. Just us."
Zambrano was being asked if he remembered the last time the Cubs won three straight in a postseason. It was the 2003 National League Championship Series. The Cubs won Games 2, 3 and 4 to take a 3-1 lead. Alas, people only seem to remember the three consecutive victories by the Marlins to win that series.
"Yeah, I remember it," said Derrek Lee, then a Marlin and now a Cub. It was easier for him to recall, for obvious reasons. "It can be done. It was just one game at a time. You don't think about three at a time. We've got to win on Saturday. Everything's easier said than done, but that's the best way to approach it."
This is an issue right now because the Cubs lost again Thursday night to the Diamondbacks, 8-4, falling into a 2-0 hole in the best-of-five NL Division Series. This series moves to Wrigley Field for Game 3 on Saturday and, if necessary, for Game 4 on Sunday. A Game 5 would be Tuesday back in Phoenix.
Naturally, the Cubs are returning home with the theme of "we can do it," and who better to believe than a Cub? At least there is recent evidence to offer hope. This is the 15th Cubs postseason, and it only happened in 2003 and 1907. The latter example was the greatest postseason streak in club history, a four-game World Series sweep following a Game 1 tie with Detroit.
It is so hard to even imagine a World Series for the 2007 Cubs right now. Apart from an ephemeral flash, the NL Central champions have been practically invisible on offense in this series. The good is not only that they have empirical evidence from 2003 on how it can be done, but also that they are coming home. Both NL Division Series are 2-0, and the Cubs at least can take solace in the fact that they could be in Philadelphia's shoes, heading to Denver for a Game 3 against the scorching Rockies.
"We're more than capable of taking three games from anyone in baseball," Mark DeRosa said. "I'm not saying it's time to push the panic button. We just have to play better baseball. We haven't put a lot of pressure on their pitching staff. We're stunned. But we still have a pulse. You've seen it done before. We just have to get it done."
You saw it done in 2003 by the Cubs.
To start that postseason, the Cubs and Braves alternated victories in the NLDS, with Chicago winning the opener and then clinching behind Kerry Wood's masterpiece at Turner Field. The Marlins then won that wild NLCS opener at Chicago in 11 innings, but Sammy Sosa hit that monster shot over the camera shed in deep center and the Cubs got even in a Game 2 romp. Chicago went to Florida and won the first two to take a 3-1 lead, Josh Beckett dominated them in Game 5 to send the series back to Chicago, and then came the great Game 6 collapse and subsequent Game 7 elimination.
Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez and Wood are the only active holdovers from that 2003 team that won three in a row. All three are holding key roles now. But if Zambrano didn't recall winning three in a row in that NLCS, it's obvious that the motivation is going to have to come from other sources. Like the skipper.
"Look, we're going home," said Lou Piniella, whose past teams have had shocking results, such as his Reds' 1990 World Series sweep of Oakland and his 2001 powerhouse Seattle's five-game loss to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. "We've got our home fans, and we've got a chance to get it back here with a couple wins, and that's exactly what we're going to try to do."
In Game 3 (5 p.m. CT), Rich Hill will start for the Cubs against 1997 World Series MVP Livan Hernandez -- who knows what it takes to throw a clinch game. In Game 4 (12 p.m. CT), Zambrano would return to the hill against Micah Owings. In Game 5 (9 p.m. CT), the probables most likely would be Ted Lilly against Brandon Webb.
More than anything, the Cubs simply have to hit if they are to avoid simply going home early. After two games, they are hitting a collective .179 (12-for-67). They have five runs and three extra-base hits. Ramirez has not been visible in the postgame clubhouse interviews the first two games, but just about everyone else has stepped forward and talked about what hasn't been done and what has to happen.
"I'm not doing anything. I have to find a way to hit," Lee said. "We only have one choice -- play better. It is what it is. We're backed into a corner. We're not pressing, either. We're just not hitting. We want to win and we're going out and giving it everything we have."
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The 2003 postseason marked the only year the Cubs played multiple rounds, as Major League Baseball added a second round in 1969 and a third round in 1995. There are certainly other memorable cases where the Cubs lost three in a row. For example, the 1998 sweep by the Braves in the NLDS. And the 1989 NLCS, where Will Clark and the Giants won the last three to take the pennant in five.
Maybe the toughest three consecutive losses pre-2003 were in 1984. Chicago won the first two at home, then went to San Diego and lost all three as the Padres advanced to the World Series.
In each of their three World Series appearances of the 1930s, the Cubs lost at least three consecutive games. The 1932 and 1938 World Series were four-game sweeps by the Yankees. In 1935, the Cubs opened with a 3-0 shutout behind Lon Warneke at Detroit, but then lost Games 2-4. Warneke again won a decision in Game 5, but the Tigers clinched it in six as Cubs batters like Phil Cavaretta (3-for-24), Stan Hack (5-for-22) and Freddie Lindstrom (3-for-15) struggled mightily.
In 1908, when the Cubs last won it all in five, they lost only Game 3 at home to the Tigers.
And then flip back one year, and the Cubs did exactly what they must do now. They won three games in a row. They even won another for good measure. Those were the days if you were a Cubs fan. Right now, you just have to hope like crazy.
"We still have hope," DeRosa said. "We're going back in front of our faithful, and our goal is to come back here."
Then one-by-one they walked out of the clubhouse, to the tunnel, to the buses, got on the flight and flew back to their Friendly Confines. It will be a much different picture there as far as the atmosphere. It is time to see whether it will be a much different picture on the scoreboard.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.