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Big Z warms up for Cubs' next act

Lee, Cubs break Mets' heart in 10th

NEW YORK -- The Mets had a lot riding on Wednesday's game. So did Carlos Zambrano.

Derrek Lee hit a tie-breaking RBI double and scored on Aramis Ramirez's two-run homer with two outs in the 10th inning to lead the Cubs to a 9-6 victory over the New York Mets, who fell into a tie for the top spot in the National League Wild Card race.

This was Zambrano's last start before the postseason, and Cubs manager Lou Piniella hinted that he may be leaning toward starting Ryan Dempster in Game 1 of the NL Division Series, which begins on Oct. 1 at Wrigley Field.

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Against the Mets, Zambrano went 4 2/3 innings and served up five runs on four walks and three hits.

"What did I think? I give it mixed reviews," Piniella said of Zambrano's outing. "He's healthy. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt and that he needs work and he's rusty.

"I wish he would just quit fighting himself out there and just relax and pitch and have fun," Piniella said. "He gets angry when he doesn't do what he expects to do. It detracts from his ability. I've tried to tell him that so many times. He understands when I tell him, and I think he forgets when he pitches."

The Cubs may try to get Zambrano an inning or two of work during the final regular-season series in Milwaukee. Piniella has to pick from Zambrano, Dempster, Ted Lilly and Rich Harden to start the NLDS.

"I've got confidence in all of them," Piniella said of his starters. "You look at Dempster's home record of 14-3 and that speaks volumes. He's pitched well all year. Basically, that tells you that we'll have an announcement in a few days."

There was a long pause in that last sentence. Piniella most likely has made his decision.

"[Zambrano] is obviously better than this, c'mon," Piniella said. "I don't think that even needs to be said."

Back to the game-winning rally. With the score tied at 6 and two outs in Chicago's 10th, Ryan Theriot singled and stole second against Luis Ayala. Lee then dropped a double down the right-field line for the game-winner. Ramirez followed with his 27th home run.

Mark DeRosa had three RBIs to help Piniella notch his 1,700th career win. He's the 14th big league manager to reach that figure. The Cubs also have won 96 games for the first time since the 1984 team finished 96-65.

Bob Howry (7-4) picked up the win, and Kerry Wood pitched the 10th for his 34th save.

With the loss, the Mets remained 1 1/2 games behind Philadelphia in the NL East, as the Phillies also lost to the Braves, 10-4. But the Milwaukee Brewers won, and moved into a tie with the Mets in the NL Wild Card standings.

DeRosa began his night with his 21st homer leading off the second. The lead was short-lived, as Zambrano got into a mess in the third. The Mets had a runner at first with two outs when Zambrano walked the next two batters to load the bases, then walked David Wright to force in a run. Carlos Delgado stepped in and during his at-bat, Jose Reyes, who was at third, danced a little off third base and exchanged a few words with Zambrano.

Delgado didn't care, and he launched his 38th home run to put the Mets ahead, 5-1. Zambrano threw 40 pitches in that inning, and 87 for the game.

"I told [Reyes] I have seven years in the big leagues," said Zambrano, who was more amused than annoyed by all the antics. "It was just a bad pitch, 3-2 fastball [to Delgado]. Everybody's looking for a fastball.

"I felt good," Zambrano said. "I just threw one bad pitch to Delgado. I made a mistake."

But is he ready for the postseason?

"Yes, I'm ready," Zambrano said. "My last three outings -- Houston, I threw a no-hitter, and against St. Louis, I was a little tired and today, I was strong and threw one bad pitch. My fastball was running good, my split-finger, my slider. Let's get it on."

Zambrano said he didn't care which game he started in the postseason.

"Whatever decision they make is good for me," Zambrano said. "Whatever Lou wants to do. I just want to help my team and be there for the playoffs. It doesn't matter if I'm the first, second or third starter. I just want to be there."

Whether Zambrano can relax in the game is something else.

"I agree," Zambrano said when told of Piniella's comments. "I have to relax and have fun. If you put in your mind that nothing will bother you, you know, nothing will bother you."

He even got along with home-plate umpire Jim Wolf. In Zambrano's last at-bat, Wolf talked to the pitcher and asked what he thought about some of the calls. Zambrano said he thought one to Wright was a strike, and Wolf admitted he may have made a mistake.

Everybody's human.

Back to the game. DeRosa flied out to center to end the third and leave the bases loaded, and he came up with the bases full in the fifth. This time, he lined a double to left, driving in two. But DeRosa slid awkwardly into second base and had to leave the game with a left calf strain. He was scheduled to have a couple of days off. Now he'll have to wear a protective boot on his left foot.

Mets starter Oliver Perez was pulled, and Reed Johnson greeted Duaner Sanchez with an RBI single. Left fielder Daniel Murphy overran the ball for an error, allowing another run to score to tie the game at 5. Alfonso Soriano hit an RBI double in the seventh, but the Mets tied the game in the eighth when Jeff Samardzija walked Ramon Martinez with the bases loaded.

With the win, the Cubs are 10-6 in extra-innings games. And still waiting to see who they'll play in the postseason.

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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