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Big Z returns to lead Cubs past Cards

Big Z returns to down Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- You knew Carlos Zambrano was back on Friday as soon as you saw the blue jerseys.

Zambrano, who prefers the alternate top to the traditional gray, returned to the mound, and Jim Edmonds was patrolling center field again in St. Louis, but in a totally different uniform himself, as the Cubs beat the Cardinals, 2-1.

"Zambrano did exactly what we needed him to do," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.

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Kosuke Fukudome and Geovany Soto each hit solo homers to back Big Z (9-3), who threw six shutout innings. He struck out five and gave up four hits in his first start since June 18. The right-hander had missed two turns while on the disabled list because of a strained right shoulder but didn't miss a beat, hitting a single in his first at-bat in the third.

Before the game, Piniella said Zambrano would throw 90 pitches, and he was pulled after 87. The right-hander said he could've gone longer.

"Today, I was able to command my fastball and throw my split and slider and mix them, and play a little bit with the hitter's mind, especially against a tough lineup like St. Louis," Zambrano said.

The Cardinals haven't looked so tough against Zambrano, now 8-0 with a 1.37 ERA since 2005 against them.

"It may be because we play against them a lot of times, and I get to face them a lot, and I know their hitters," Zambrano said of his stellar numbers. "I don't know. Sometimes it's like when Mariano Rivera pitches against the Red Sox, sometimes he doesn't do too well because he sees them a lot. Sometimes we're lucky, and sometimes we forget that day. We're just trying to do our job as a pitcher, as a survivor. I was just trying to go out there and do my job."

Zambrano said he was ready last Sunday after a bullpen session at U.S. Cellular Field. It was tough to wait for the mandatory 15 days to elapse.

"I felt the same on Sunday as I did today," Zambrano said.

"He had good tempo, good quick innings, and he was able to go six innings without giving up any runs," Soto said. "He likes big games. Whenever we have big games, he's the guy who wants to pitch in them. He's a competitor, and going out there giving 100 percent."

The Cubs had led the National League in ERA, but entered Friday's game ranked fourth.

"We need to get him out there pitching again," Piniella said. "Since he's been on the DL, we haven't pitched nearly as well. I don't know if it's coincidence or something that was going to happen anyway. We'd like to have him back on the mound."

There was no need for a rehab start, or any Minor League time.

"It wasn't two months, it was two weeks," said Zambrano of his time off. "If it was one month, I'd be all over the place or doing something wrong.

"I was nice and calm, and I knew I was feeling good. When I feel good, I'm just trying to do my job and win the ballgame."

Whether or not they were inspired by Zambrano's return, or simply got good pitches to hit, the Cubs were on the board quickly. Fukudome hit his seventh homer with one out in the first, and Soto had three hits, including his 14th homer, with two outs in the fourth. Both came off Braden Looper (9-6).

Edmonds, who called St. Louis home for eight years and still has his restaurant "F15teen" here, was playing his first game at Busch Stadium since the Cardinals dealt him to the San Diego Padres last December. He received a standing ovation in his first at-bat leading off the second, and then was booed by some of the red-clad fans in the sellout crowd of 46,450 when he struck out. He finished 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

Albert Pujols notched his 300th career homer with two outs in the eighth off Bob Howry, but Kerry Wood pitched a perfect ninth for his 22nd save, despite having fireworks exploding in the background near the Gateway Arch.

"I've never seen anything like that," Piniella said of the pyrotechnics that started during Ryan Theriot's at-bat in the ninth. "It had to be a little distracting to the players out there."

"After you put the sign down, you just block out everything," Soto said. "You hear it, but you don't. You just focus on the game."

The Cubs won for the third time in the last nine games, and opened a 3 1/2-game lead in the NL Central over the Cardinals.

"It's early in the season to get too caught up in 1 1/2 and 3 1/2," Piniella said. "It is important to win the first game of a big series like this. It gives us a chance to go out there tomorrow and increase our lead."

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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