Zambrano, who had flown to Venezuela Wednesday after his grandmother died, didn't last through the second inning as Adam Kennedy hit a grand slam in the first to spark the St. Louis Cardinals to a 12-6 victory Friday over the Cubs.
"That's a little reminder why you don't count your chickens before they hatch," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.
There was no need to worry where the Cubs players were Friday night waiting for the outcome of the Milwaukee Brewers' game with the Cincinnati Reds. The Brewers lost, 11-2, reducing the Cubs' magic number to one, but Piniella has grown weary of questions that assume the Cubs have wrapped things up.
"My team has handled it pretty well," Piniella said. "The media has made it out like we've already won three games in the playoffs. Let's get there.
"The scenario is we have to win two baseball games," he said. "It's plain and simple. The magic number is two. Milwaukee loses two games, [or] we win two games. It's so simple. It's kindergarten stuff now."
Zambrano (14-6), who threw the first Cubs no-hitter in 36 years in his last start Sunday against the Houston Astros, had his shortest outing since Sept. 4, 2006, when he lasted 1 1/3 innings against Pittsburgh. Vander Meer is the only Major League pitcher to throw consecutive no-no's, doing so in 1938, and Skip Schumaker ended any consideration of a repeat performance by Zambrano when he doubled on the second pitch of the game.
The Cardinals didn't stop there. Ryan Ludwick singled, then Schumaker scored on Albert Pujols' single. Felipe Lopez walked to load the bases, and one out later, Kennedy cleared them with his second homer of the season and second career grand slam.
St. Louis made it 7-0 in the second, as Jason LaRue doubled and eventually scored on a wild pitch by Zambrano, and Lopez added an RBI single. Zambrano was pulled after giving up eight runs on six hits over 1 2/3 innings.
"There's no excuse," Zambrano said. "I came here ready today, and I wasn't ready and it's one of those games that you just have to forget and get to the next step."
He had worked out Wednesday morning at Wrigley Field, then got on a plane to fly back to Venezuela and returned to Chicago Thursday night. That's not as easy as flying round trip to St. Louis, even if you are traveling first class.
"My legs didn't respond when I was warming up in the bullpen," Zambrano said. "You do the best you can to battle in the game and give your team a chance to win the ballgame, and I didn't do that. It's over with, and we're in a good situation and we can clinch tomorrow or the next day. We have to come ready to play."
Zambrano didn't make matters any better when Piniella came out to the mound in the second inning to get him. The right-hander headed to the dugout early, and Piniella stopped him.
"All I expect when I take a pitcher out of the ballgame is wait on the mound and give me the baseball," Piniella said. "No more, no less."
"That was stupid by me," Zambrano said. "I have too many things in my mind, and obviously, it wasn't a good move. I will apologize to Lou and talk to him."
|Pitchers who gave up seven or more runs in their next start after throwing a no-hitter|
Zambrano could've asked Piniella for an extra day if the jet lag was too much.
"I thought about that," Zambrano said. "It's hard to make that decision, especially in the situation we are. I wanted to be a hero today. It didn't happen the way I thought it would."
It was short notice for the Cubs to make a switch. As it turned out, they used five pitchers besides Zambrano.
"I feel bad for the fact that his grandmother passed away, and I respect his right to go to Venezuela to see her," Piniella said, "but outside of that, I have nothing else to say."
He did take advantage of the situation and pulled all the regulars except second baseman Mike Fontenot after the fourth. Scorecards from the game looked like those from a Spring Training game because of all the substitutions.
"I wouldn't call it Cactus League," Daryle Ward said. "There were too many fans in the stands to call it that."
The Cubs have two regular-season home games remaining, and they can still clinch at Wrigley Field this weekend.
"I would just like to win the rest of the games we have left," Ward said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.