"We're there," Piniella said after the Cubs picked up their seventh win in the last nine games, a 7-0 romp over the Washington Nationals on Saturday night. "Now, it's just maintaining and continuing to improve in the areas we need to improve in. It's a long season, and the competition is tough. I don't take anything for granted. We have to continue to improve."
Carlos Zambrano (4-1) seems to be doing just fine. He threw seven scoreless innings and gave the overworked bullpen a break.
"He gave us exactly what we needed," Piniella said.
Derrek Lee drove in three runs, and Mark DeRosa and Aramis Ramirez each knocked in two as the Cubs matched their highest April win total in franchise history with No. 16 -- and there are three more games remaining. The team also won 16 in April 1969. Before this season, the Cubs had won at least 15 games in April three times, doing so in 1969, 2001 and '03.
"We had a meeting on Opening Day, and [Piniella] said last year we got off to a slow start and that's tough to overcome," Ramirez said. "We did [rally] last year, but we don't want to be in that position again. We're doing everything right. We're hitting, and we're pitching pretty good."
Zambrano is pitching great. The right-hander struck out five and held the Nationals to five hits and four walks. Big Z got the Ks when he needed. Lastings Milledge struck out to end the Nationals' first and third innings, stranding two baserunners each frame, and Zambrano fanned Ryan Zimmerman to end the seventh and leave two on.
"As soon as I went out there and was warming up, I knew I was feeling good and said that I have to give seven or eight strong innings," Zambrano said. "Everything I planned before the game worked."
Zambrano is having one of the best Aprils of his career. What's the difference?
"Strikes," Zambrano said. "Today was the first game I walked four batters. That's OK. When you feel good and have good stuff, you can walk people and get out of any situation when you want.
"So far, I've been throwing the ball the way I want and throwing a lot of strikes. First-pitch strike is the key. Like I said the first game of the season -- first pitch is the key. Being ahead is the advantage for any pitcher."
Part of the reason Zambrano is having success is that he prepared well this offseason. Give an assist to Edgar Tovar, one of the Cubs' bullpen catchers, who spent time with Zambrano in Venezuela. Give another assist to rookie catcher Geovany Soto. He went 0-for-5 Saturday, striking out five times. He now has struck out eight times in his last eight at-bats. No biggie.
"He caught a shutout," Piniella said. "He was shut out also.
"We teach our catchers to carry the pitching staff first, and hitting is second, and he worked that to a 'T' tonight. I've never seen a guy strike out eight times in eight at-bats. This is a first."
When Soto needed to settle down Zambrano, he did, and did so professionally.
"For me, it's really good to see," Piniella said of the way the rookie handled Zambrano. "A young kid, when you're struggling with the bat, you can let that carry into your defensive position. Like he told me after the ballgame, we won, and that's all that matters. But I think we'll give him the day off tomorrow."
Zambrano said he didn't shake Soto off once on Saturday.
"He was 0-for-5 today, but tomorrow he'll come to the ballpark ready to play," Zambrano said. "That's good to see a young catcher like him getting ready for every game. It doesn't matter the day before. This game, it's not about what happens the day before, but what happens consistently."
Reed Johnson, Ryan Theriot and Lee combined for six hits in the first two innings. Johnson and Theriot each singled to start the game against Matt Chico (0-5), and Johnson scored on Lee's single to left. Two batters later, DeRosa hit a two-run single for a 3-0 lead.
With one out in the second, Johnson and Theriot hit back-to-back singles again, and both scored on Lee's double to make it 5-0. It was the second three-RBI game for Lee this season.
"The front part of our lineup really hit well today," Piniella said.
Felix Pie was hit on the right foot by a pitch, and one out later, Lee walked to set up Ramirez's two-run double in the Chicago eighth. Ramirez also drew a walk in the second, his 15th for the season. He seems to be more patient at the plate.
"I am more patient," he said. "This year, they're pitching me different."
It has nothing to do with the presence of Kosuke Fukudome, who hits behind Ramirez. The Japanese outfielder is batting .329. No one wants runners on base ahead of Fukudome.
Fukudome didn't exactly celebrate his 31st birthday with a big hit as he went 0-for-4. Maybe next year, he'll get a "Cubbie blue"-colored birthday cake, and not green like the one he was presented with on Saturday.
Going hitless is no big deal. The way the Cubs are going, someone else will pick up the slack.
"We have a good team," Zambrano said. "When you're playing as a team, you have good games. We fight to win. Kosuke has been outstanding for us, defensively and offensively. Our pitching has been good. Everything is working now for us. Hopefully we can continue working like this. Like our manager said, we need a fresh start."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less