Geovany Soto smacked a game-tying solo homer and added a two-run single and Derrek Lee reached 100 RBIs for the second time in his career to lift the Cubs to a 13-7 win over the Brewers on Tuesday night. The victory moved the Cubs to within 5 1/2 games of the National League Wild Card-leading Rockies.
Aaron Heilman (3-3) picked up the win in relief of Zambrano, who was starting one year and a day after throwing a no-hitter. Zambrano struck out a season-high nine batters, giving him 1,304 career strikeouts, one shy of tying Greg Maddux for fifth on the team's all-time list. But that was the highlight.
Even though he didn't give up a hit until Escobar connected with one out in the third, Zambrano was thinking about Tuesday, not the game against Houston a year ago at Miller Park.
"I don't think about things that already happened," Zambrano said. "Today was another day, a different day. It was the same feeling, the same way that the ball was coming out of my hand."
Zambrano cruised through the first four innings, and the Cubs opened a 4-0 lead. But the Brewers scored five runs in the fifth, all with two outs, to erase that margin.
"I felt good. I was warming up good," Zambrano said. "Everything was good until that inning."
"Zambrano had it going really good there for 4 2/3 innings," manager Lou Piniella said. "You've got a 4-0 lead with the pitcher coming up and two outs, and you feel pretty good about getting out of that inning. And they put five runs on the board. ... I liked the way Carlos was throwing the ball early. I don't know what happened there in the fifth inning."
Yovani Gallardo, a .167 hitter, got Milwaukee's fifth started with a single. Felipe Lopez walked, and Zambrano faced six more batters, serving up a two-run double to Corey Hart, an RBI single to Ryan Braun and a two-run single to Mike Cameron.
"He lost his location, there's no question about it," Piniella said. "He was locating the ball really well through four innings. Then he started to get behind in the count and had to center the ball. I thought tonight, the way he came out throwing, I thought he'd give us six or seven good innings, and it didn't work out that way."
Soto got Zambrano off the hook with a leadoff homer in the Chicago fifth, his 11th dinger of the season.
Zambrano had protested being pulled after six in his previous outing, and Piniella joked that next time he would let the pitcher go the distance, even if it meant throwing 200 pitches. Instead, Big Z was lifted after 103 tosses over five innings.
"It's been tough, but not frustrating," Zambrano said of his season, which was interrupted by stints on the disabled list. "I'm trying to help this team and trying to do the best to win every time I go to the mound. Just have fun. I go out there to have fun and try to help this team any way I can."
Zambrano still has a chance to finish with double-digit victories for the seventh straight season.
"Every year I've been here, going into Spring Training, I'm thinking Zambrano is going to win 20 ballgames," Piniella said. "That's how talented I think he is. One thing or another, he hasn't been able to do that. Hopefully, in the not too far future, he can put a full year together, stay injury free, stay focused and win himself the amount of ballgames he's fully capable of winning."
The Cubs rallied with a five-run sixth. They loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batter, and Todd Coffey plunked Aramis Ramirez with a pitch to force in a run. Soto followed with a two-run single to make it 8-5. Another run scored on a throwing error by Prince Fielder.
For the game, the Brewers walked 12.
"It was a strange game," Milwaukee manager Ken Macha said. "I thought [Monday] with no wind, there would be a lot of runs. Then today, with the wind blowing in, I thought there would be a small number of runs. Here again, you walk all those people ..."
No need to finish the thought.
Lee helped the Cubs open the 4-0 lead with a two-run double in the fourth, giving him 100 RBIs. He picked up another with a bases-loaded walk in the seventh. Lee drove in 107 runs in 2005.
"What a season this young man is turning out to have," Piniella said.
"It means I'm doing my job," Lee said of reaching the century mark. "I've driven in runs -- guys in front of me have gotten on base, and I've driven them in."
The baseball cliché is that it's not how you start, but how you finish that matters. Lee batted .189 in April. He's riding an eight-game hitting streak and batting .483 in that stretch. Lee now has a .307 average for the season.
"The season doesn't end because you have a bad start," Lee said. "You keep going. It's the same as the team. Things didn't go the way we wanted, but it's not over. You keep on going, because it's not over."
The Cubs are seven games over .500 for the first time since Aug. 9. They've picked up a little momentum, going 9-1 in the past 10 games against division foes.
"Right now, we're still trying to win as many games and finish as strong as we can," Piniella said.
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.