The Cubs' ace held the Marlins to two runs and six hits in seven innings in a 6-3 series-opening victory Thursday night. Zambrano (11-4) struck out six and walked none after issuing six free passes in his first post-All-Star start. The Cubs snatched their league-leading 60th win to stay one game up on surging Milwaukee despite being without injured closer Kerry Wood.
There's room for improvement before next week's four-game set at Miller Park. The shaky Cubs bullpen made things interesting in front of 41,482 fans, a crowd that pushed the Wrigley Field total past 2 million in the 50th home game of the season, the quickest Cubs season ever to that mark. Carlos Marmol, filling in for Wood, walked the bases loaded in the ninth but fanned Wes Helms to end it.
A relieved Lou Piniella relaxed with a cold beverage afterward and offered a Zambrano-like assessment of Marmol.
"You know what, he's a little too excitable," Piniella said. "He's just got to calm down a little bit, make his pitches, trust his pitches. He's got good stuff."
Marmol threw 38 pitches in 1 1/3 innings, walking three and striking out three, the type of line that is quickly becoming his trademark. Zambrano tallied 125 pitches in his fourth start since coming off the disabled list. It's safe to say he's not on a tight leash anymore.
"He threw a lot of pitches," Piniella said. "I knew it was up there."
As usual, the Cubs regained their groove at home following a forgettable road trip. The team didn't land in Chicago until Thursday morning, leaving some players just a short nap and others no sleep at all. Piniella canceled batting practice to give them more time to recuperate.
The hitters responded with two homers (Henry Blanco and Ronny Cedeno) and four doubles to help put to bed the slump talk of the past week.
"I don't care when it happens, you're due to not hit for a little stretch. It just coincided with the fact that Milwaukee is playing really good ball," said right fielder Mark DeRosa, who walked twice, scored a run and made a full-extension, extra-bases-robbing catch to preserve the three-run cushion in the eighth. "There's no panic in here."
Florida can take two positives from the loss. It won't have to face Wood this weekend. The Marlins also don't have to worry about Zambrano again, unless he's called upon to pinch-hit and do even more damage with his bat.
Zambrano's one-out double sparked a four-run fifth and scored DeRosa to knot the game at 2-2. Alfonso Soriano was then intentionally walked to load the bases, and Ryan Theriot grounded into a forceout at home. Scott Olsen (6-5) walked Derrek Lee to plate the go-ahead run and gave up a two-run double to Aramis Ramirez. Lee was tagged out at home on the Ramirez double to end the inning with the Cubs up for good, 5-2.
Zambrano's base knock was key, and he knew it. He pointed at the Cubs dugout after reaching second, signaling the top of the order to follow the lead.
"It's part of my job, as a National League pitcher, you have to go out there and give effort every at-bat you take," said Zambrano, who is hitting .356. "You have to take it seriously. Every time I go to the plate, I do the best I can to do something."
Blanco tacked a solo home run in the sixth, while the Marlins managed a sacrifice fly off reliever Chad Gaudin in the eighth before Marmol worked a wild ninth.
The first three runs also came on long balls. In the third, Florida shortstop Hanley Ramirez hit a two-run homer and Cedeno smacked a solo shot, his second of the year.
The Cubs improved to 38-12 at Wrigley, leading Zambrano to make a comparison to another hot home team.
"We may be like the Boston Celtics," he said.
He'll know for sure in October.
Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.